October 05, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Don’t forget, bracket out, or lose sight of verses 10-13!! This Lectionary text may include only Mark 10:17-31 but trust me: the four verses prior are the kicker.
Picture the scene: Jesus has just lifted his hands off the heads of the little children he had been blessing. His words are still hanging in the air: “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom like a little child will never enter it.” Jesus had just said that. He had just removed his hand from the precious brows of those little kids. Then he turns around and immediately this well-to-do young man plunks himself down in front of Jesus to ask his question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
You half expect Jesus to say, “Funny you should ask! I was just talking about that very thing. See those little ones scurrying away holding their parents’ hands or being carried by their mothers? Go and be like those little ones and you’ll be on the right track.” But Jesus doesn’t say that, of course. Instead he takes what surely he himself knew to be a wrong-headed question and simply addresses it head on.
Well, almost. Jesus will get there but he takes a bit of a roundabout way to get to the point.
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Near as I can tell, this means one of two things (and maybe it can mean both at the same time when you get right down to it): it means either that if this title of “good” fits Jesus, then he is himself true God in human form OR it means that if being good by doing good—the premise of the young man’s question—is the way to inherit the kingdom, then a person had better be as good as God or else he could have no hope of ever getting into the kingdom.
Either way or both ways, it looks like a focus on “good” from the human side of things might very well not advance anyone’s cause when it comes to kingdom membership or entry. Even so, Jesus proceeds to tick off some of the commandments, eliciting from the earnest young man the response, “All these have I kept since I was a boy.”
Since I was a boy. Since I was a boy. In other words, ever since he left childhood and infancy behind; ever since he had exited that rotten stage of life when the only thing he had been able to produce was dirty diapers—ever since he had ceased to be like those urchins whom Jesus had just blessed and whose status in life Jesus had just highlighted as somehow necessary for inclusion in the kingdom—ever since that loser period of his life had been put behind him, this young man had done it all right. His whole life was like one big shiny bauble to be presented to God, who would then reward the man according to all he had done. Of course, he had had to leave childhood behind to do all that but, thanks be to God, he had indeed done so. There was nothing of the child left in him now! He was his own man—a self-made man at that!
This young man was less interested in inheriting the kingdom and more interested in earning it. Indeed, he was pretty sure he had earned it already.
To be honest, if I detected the kind of moral hubris I suspect characterized this young man, my jaw would tighten a bit. A slew of unflattering adjectives for describing his life would start to rise up in my mind. Arrogant. Cocky. Pompous. That’s what I would have thought. But Mark 10:21 is one of those (many, many, many) passages in the New Testament that nicely reminds me of at least some of what differentiates me from my Savior.
Because Mark tells us that Jesus looked at this man and flat out loved him. Jesus knew the truth. Jesus knew the man was no plastic saint. Jesus knew that although this was a good moral specimen he was not a perfect moral specimen (there is no one who is truly good after all; viz., God) and so the young fellow was just deluding himself if he thought he had a 4.0 moral GPA going, a peerless moral credit rating, a life of virtue greater than which none could be conceived. Jesus knew all that was silliness (and anyway that it had nothing to do with entry into the kingdom).
But he loved him anyway.
Jesus loved him so much, he couldn’t bear to let him persist in this backward way to gain the kingdom. So he goes for the chink in the man’s moral armor and tells him to do the one thing that the man would find pretty tough—if not impossible—to do. Sell it all. Give it all up. At this the man’s face fell so far so fast that Jesus probably winced. And if the man walked away sad, you can be sure Jesus felt sad, too.
“Kingdom entry is hard on the rich” Jesus said. But it’s not really about the money as it turns out. What’s hard on the rich is dispensing with the idea that they can buy their way in, that they can get into the kingdom the same way they’ve snagged everything else in life. What’s hard is to dispense with the idea that being successful has something to do with everything, including being in good with God. What’s hard, in other words, is for the people who have arrived at the top to go back down to the bottom to become like little children again.
Remember that theme song from the old TV show “The Jeffersons”? The song was all about getting rich, making some money.
Well we’re moving on up—moving on up—to the East Side!
To a deee-luxe apartment in the sky!
We’re moving on up!
We’ve finally got our piece of the pie.
That’s how it goes in life, and few know this better than the rich and the successful because they’ve spent their lives aiming at just this upward mobility, at arriving at the top of the rock, at the penthouse in the sky from which to look down on the sad masses below.
“Children” Jesus says to the disciples in verse 24. Children. It’s hard to get into the kingdom when you try to get in. But you know how it goes for little children who don’t know how the world works yet and who don’t care. They don’t try to do anything, they just exist and get all the love that comes their way. They wake up in a loving family in which they receive grace after grace. When you’re really little, you sometimes even think that the whole world was arranged just for you, and so it’s merely startling to learn somewhere along the line that there was once a time when it was just mom and dad and no kids, when “mom” was not “mom” at all but just Vicki, the wife of Rick (who was also not yet known as “dad”). “You mean there was a time without me?” (It’s even more disheartening to realize that mom and dad even had a lot of fun in those pre-you days!)
We can all look back at such childish thoughts and laugh at how silly we once were. How childish to think that the little world in which you grew up and of which you slowly became conscious as a child had always existed! How silly.
Then again, something of that naïve attitude, something of that wonderful ability just to receive what is given without worrying about how to build up your own set of accomplishments by which to try to become worthy of receiving anything good at all: there is something about all of that which is not really child-ISH at all.
It’s child-LIKE, and it’s how the kingdom comes, too.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
Will a camel ever get through the eye of a needle? Is this about effort? I once read a commentary that claimed that surely here Jesus referred to something in Jerusalem called “The Needle Gate.” It was narrow enough to make things tough on a bulky camel but if this is what Jesus meant, then a stripped-down, lean, mean camel who’s been on a diet and practicing a really steady walking gait for hours on end might make it through the gate. In this case Jesus’ words were the equivalent of “If you try hard enough, you’ll make it.”
That, however, was most assuredly not Jesus’ point. We’re talking real camels and real needles here and if this was an example of hyperbole from our Lord, it’s hardly the only one. Jesus loved talking about logs in people’s eyes and swallowing camels whole. But every time Jesus used such a hyperbole it was in service of a pretty important point. Jesus used the ridiculous—someone’s walking around with a tree protruding from his head yet worrying about a speck of sawdust in another person’s eye—to convey important theological truths.
In the case of Mark 10 the point of the ridiculous image was to say that those trying to leap-frog into the kingdom under their own power needed to stop. Getting the camel through the needle’s eye is not a matter of technique. This is not some video game like “Angry Birds” where eventually you can go to a “cheat code” website to figure out the trick of where to aim that first bird to get the highest score possible. This isn’t a matter of playing the odds as though the camel will get through the needle’s eye if only you try often enough the way you might eventually get the baseball to go through the small hole at the carnival arcade if only you keep throwing long enough.
None of that will work. The point of this image is “Stop trying.” Quit. The point of the image is to create exactly the demoralization the young man in Mark 10 felt.
But was that to be the end of it for Jesus? No, the hope was to have the young man come back to ask “Is there another way?” Oh yes, there is. It’s called the miracle of divine grace.
In a memorable sermon on the last line from John’s Gospel (“if everything Jesus said and did were recorded, the world could not contain the books that would be written”), Fred Craddock talked a lot about Jesus’ hyperbolic speech. Along the way Craddock noted the sheer ludicrous nature of hyperbole but then brought things around to the point where you realized that some things—like the Gospel of salvation through Christ, for intance—simply require hyperbole. Hyperbole might end up being a literal form of framing things after all. In fact, since Jesus created and redeemed the entire world, maybe it really is true that the scope of Jesus’ work (if written down) would fill the whole world because it just IS the whole world!
So also here: with human beings, it’s impossible to get a camel through a needle’s eye. And I am that camel. So are you. The point of Mark 10 is to stop trying, to let go and let God, and then to sit back in amazement when—beyond all comprehension or anything you could have ever predicted—we see that old camel slip right on through that needle’s eye!
This must be the kind of thing that gave rise to the old Fannie Crosby song “And Can It Be!?”
Childhood really does seem to be a constitutive theme of this passage. Indeed, from verse 10 through verse 24, Mark uses a battery of Greek words. The little ones in verse 13 are PAIDIA, which is a typical Greek word for little kids. In verse 20 when the young man says he had kept all the commandments “since I was a boy,” the Greek word there is NEOTETOS, which is a more generic word for “youth” or for someone of a young age. Finally, by the time you get to verse 24 where Jesus addresses the disciples as “children,” Jesus uses the Greek word TEKNA. This variety of words may not mean a lot all by itself but it does point to the fact that Mark is very cleverly working in the larger theme of youth, of child-likeness, of the humility of little kids. It really is a theme of this passage and we will not understand Jesus’ words to the rich young man unless we weave in this overarching theme of humility and having the openness to receive the kingdom as a gift on account of our recognition that we can NEVER earn it on our own.
Paul Scott Wilson once re-imagined the rich young man this way:
“In my mind I see a rich young youth pastor who has heard that Jesus is preaching at a small town, and he speeds over to try to catch Jesus before he leaves. The young man is ahead of his time in that he drives a black BMW with tinted windows, the kind you cannot see through; low profile tires so they look like they are about two inches deep; low-ride suspension to make it no distance from the road; and a racing exhaust system that sounds like the name of its manufacturer: Vibrant Muffler. In the trunk and where the backseat used to be are amplifiers and speakers that make the whole neighborhood throb with his Christian CDs. Tddh, thddt, thddt-thddt . . . Jesus hears the young man before he sees him. When his car glides to a stop, the ignition is turned off; there is dead silence . . . The young man emerges from the driver’s side wearing brand name sunglasses and designer shirt and shorts. He goes over to Jesus: ‘Jesus, it is so awesome that you are here. I can’t believe it. It’s so cool! What must I do to have eternal life? I keep the commandments . . . What must I do to have eternal life?’
This young guy has a sense that something is wrong with his life, but he figures it can’t be much since he has been so good. He knows that something keeps him from being completely at peace with life, but since he is so good, he knows it cannot be much. Something small in his life needs adjustment: a slight tweaking, some fine-tuning like he gets on his car, a minor correction in the timing, a slight adjustment in the idling speed.
‘You lack one thing for eternal life.’ The young man takes heart. ‘Take your new sunglasses and your expensive jacket and exchange them for simple clothes; and take your Christian CDs to a pawn shop and sell your BMW in Auto Trader, and give the money to the poor. And you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ The young man is shocked . . . He was brokenhearted and went away grieving . . . And he gets in his car and drives back down the same road he came, utterly dejected, the CD player off. And he is never to be seen again in the New Testament. The last we see of him is a small cloud of dust on the horizon as his BMW dips over the horizon into a valley. But we know where he is headed. He is headed for Heartbreak Hotel.”
From Broken Words: Reflections on the Craft of Preaching by Paul Scott Wilson, Abingdon, 2004, pp. 67-68.
Author: Scott Hoezee
If you read the John Grisham novel The Firm, you may recall the horrifying moment when a young lawyer and his wife discover that the house so “generously” provided to them by the young man’s law firm is bugged to the hilt. Every conversation they had had, every lovemaking sigh, every TV show they had watched had been recorded and listened in on by The Firm. In the film version, the young lawyer’s wife—played by Jeanne Tripplehorne—reacts to the revelation by literally running and screaming into the night.
As Neal Plantinga once noted, if we discovered that anyone had intimate knowledge of the details of our lives, the presence of that person would unnerve us. Yet Scripture—in places like Psalm 139 and Job 23, tells us that God DOES have just that knowledge about every one of us. Thankfully, Scripture also reveals that this all-knowing God can be trusted with our darkest secrets—and even with our brightest successes and strong points—because the Bible tells us that this God loves us (yes, even while we were yet sinners he loved us). In Christ the inescapable nature of God becomes, blessedly enough, a positive thing and not a source of creepiness.
And make no mistake: Psalm 139 and Job 23 are on the same page thematically. Consider:
Psalm 139: If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
Job 23: If I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him.
Psalm 139: If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day for darkness is as light to you.
Job 23: Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.
Psalm 139 says God is inescapable even to—or perhaps especially to—those who are actually trying to escape this God. You cannot not find God even if you try. Conversely, if you do want to find God, it’s a cinch. Gandhi once said that God is closer to us than flesh is to fingernails. Psalm 139 agrees.
Yet Job 23 says that even though Job had been trying fiercely hard for a good long while to locate God, God was hidden. God had gone off duty. The old Medieval category of Deus Absconditus, of “the hidden God,” made perfect sense to Job. God was apparently engaging in a cosmic game of Hide-n-Seek, and he was powerfully good at it, too. And that was too bad because Job had a list of things to say to God, a list as long as your arm and then some. “Come out, come out wherever you are” Job was crying east, west, north, and south. But he was confronted with the great silence of the spheres.
Job is like a lawyer who is well briefed and well prepared. He may or may not have an open-and-shut case but he’s got a strong case and is eager to step up to the bar and begin the argument. Of course, Job is still wise enough and humble enough to know that if God were suddenly to arise before him out of some crevice in the earth, Job would probably be scared witless, at least initially. But he was determined to keep his feet under him and say what needed to be said in defending himself against the charges his miserable friends had been jabbering on about for twenty or so chapters in the Book of Job and the case that Job suspected God himself might try to bring against Job as an explanation for the multiple calamities that had befallen him.
Actually, Job thinks that God would hear his case and would not even necessarily mount a defense. God as judge would dismiss the charges. Or at least Job is pretty sure he would . . . but you never know when you’re dealing with Almighty God!
For preachers, Job 23 presents an opportunity to address the very real fact that at any given moment, there are people in the congregation who are having a hard time locating God. And it’s not for lack of trying, either. Psalm 139 reminds us that if we try to escape God for whatever the reason, we will not be successful. But Job 23 is the foil to that passage and as such reminds us of a singular irony: so often in life when you are not looking for God—or even when you’d just as soon not run into God—you run into the presence of God anyway. Yet at other times those who are desperate to locate God cannot do so.
What accounts for this? Does God really withdraw from certain people, throwing a veil over their spiritual eyes? Is it the case that God is actively gone or is it that he only seems gone to people who are blinded by suffering? One thing is certain: many perfectly pious people will testify to the silence of God during certain periods of life. Answers don’t come. Or the answers that do come—usually from well-meaning friends, a la Job’s friends—are so obviously false that you just know they cannot be the true Word of the Lord on this matter. So they keep screaming—or whimpering—their questions into the darkness, but the darkness neither blinks nor answers back.
Of course, were we as preachers to give some tidy account as to the exact whys and wherefores of this scenario, we would be guilty in a backdoor way of the same sin of Job’s friends. So what we can offer is the sideways comfort of telling people that the experience of divine silence, the feeling that God is not as close as perhaps had once been the case in life, the sense that maybe God has moved to a different corner of the cosmos altogether: all these experiences and sensations are common to the lives of the devout. This is not a sign of weak faith. This is not an indication that you need to pray harder. And, pace Job’s friends, it is not a sign of divine disapproval, that you did something bad and that if only you would clean up your act, repent of your sin, then God would reappear and all would be well.
“It’s your sin that is blocking the divine signal! Your own tawdriness is jamming God’s transmission. Stop it! Repent of it! Then watch the blessings return to your life like a holy floodtide!”
No, no. The Psalms of Lament and passages like Job 23 don’t give much, if any, quarter to such neat and tidy scenarios. The fact is that perfectly good people sometimes endure the dark night of the soul and whether or not in the long run those same people will ever testify that they got some real positive benefit from that experience, the fact is it happens and our neat attempts to line everything up in a 1:1 correspondence usually fail as ways to explain it all.
The comfort we can offer people in a sermon on Job 23 may not be the last comfort but neither need it be viewed as “cold comfort,” which is finally no comfort at all in that it actually increases misery. The Book of Job through its first 20+ chapters bears witness to the fact that the only thing that can make divine absence and silence worse are attempts to make quick sense of it or to proffer a simple solution to it. Instead, when you are faced with a suffering sister or brother, the best thing you may be able to do is acknowledge the pain, admit that you don’t have an answer either, and then sit quietly on the ash heap to wait with your suffering friend for God to put in an appearance. That is sometimes the kindest and most compassionate thing anyone can offer.
From First Things magazine, “The Dark Night of Mother Teresa” by Carol Zaleski, May 2003 Issue.
Throughout 1946 and 1947, Mother Teresa experienced a profound union with Christ. But soon after she left the convent and began her work among the destitute and dying on the street, the visions and locutions ceased, and she experienced a spiritual darkness that would remain with her until her death. It is hard to know what is more to be marveled at: that this twentieth-century commander of a worldwide apostolate and army of charity should have been a visionary contemplative at heart; or that she should have persisted in radiating invincible faith and love while suffering inwardly from the loss of spiritual consolation. In letters written during the 1950s and 1960s to Fr. Van Exem, Archbishop Périer, and to later spiritual directors, Fr. L. T. Picachy, S.J., and Fr. J. Neuner, S.J., she disclosed feelings of doubt, loneliness, and abandonment. God seemed absent, heaven empty, and bitterest of all, her own suffering seemed to count for nothing, “. . . just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”
The dark night of Mother Teresa presents us with an even greater interpretive challenge than her visions and locutions. It means that the missionary foundress who called herself “God’s pencil” was not the God-intoxicated saint many of us had assumed her to be. We may prefer to think that she spent her days in a state of ecstatic mystical union with God, because that would get us ordinary worldlings off the hook. How else could this unremarkable woman, no different from the rest of us, bear to throw her lot in with the poorest of the poor, sharing their meager diet and rough clothing, wiping leprous sores and enduring the agonies of the dying, for so many years without respite, unless she were somehow lifted above it all, shielded by spiritual endorphins? Yet we have her own testimony that what made her self-negating work possible was not a subjective experience of ecstasy but an objective relationship to God shorn of the sensible awareness of God’s presence.
Mother Teresa learned to deal with her trial of faith by converting her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God. It would be her Gethsemane, she came to believe, and her participation in the thirst Jesus suffered on the Cross. And it gave her access to the deepest poverty of the modern world: the poverty of meaninglessness and loneliness. To endure this trial of faith would be to bear witness to the fidelity for which the world is starving. “Keep smiling,” Mother Teresa used to tell her community and guests, and somehow, coming from her, it doesn’t seem trite. For when she kept smiling during her night of faith, it was not a cover-up but a manifestation of her loving resolve to be “an apostle of joy.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 22 is a psalm of lament that expresses the poet’s anguish at his enemies’ relentless and ferocious attacks on him. It contains the kind of honesty with God that 21st century Christians seem sometimes reluctant to express. So how does such a lament fit into the season of Ordinary Time in which the Revised Common Lectionary places it?
Psalm 22 reminds worshipers that the shalom that the Holy Spirit brings doesn’t yet fully rest on all of creation and its creatures. What’s more, this psalm reminds worshipers that the grief that people sometimes cause is part of ordinary time, of life lived in the daily presence of not only God, but also sinners.
Of course, the gospel writers make extensive use of Psalm 22, particularly to describe Jesus’ suffering that culminates at Golgotha’s cross. As a result, the church has sometimes understood this psalm almost exclusively in terms of Jesus’ experiences. Yet as James Mays wisely points out, Psalm 22 invites worshipers to understand Jesus in terms of it. In fact, Jesus’ own extensive use of it teaches worshipers something about his relationship to both prayer and the psalms.
After all, with virtually his last breath, Jesus remembers and prays in ways that are so clearly shaped by the psalms. This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 22 an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on their familiarity with the psalms. Clearly they’ve long been a source of rich comfort for those in trouble and walking through death’s dark valley. Will modern worshipers be equipped by their familiarity with the psalms to find the same comfort?
After all, even in Psalm 22’s poignant lament there’s a profession of the poet’s faith. God seems either far away from the poet or deaf to his prayers. Yet the psalmist speaks of God not just as “God,” but, three times, in fact, as “my God.”
Mays suggests verses 3-5 and 9-10 especially describe what it means for Yahweh to be the poet’s God. It means, according to verses 3-5, to be part of a group of people whom the sovereign Lord has redeemed. To have God as the poet’s God also means to be, according to verses 9-10, one for whom God has cared like a father cares for his child, taking him from his mother’s womb and laying at his mother’s breast.
Yet Psalm 22’s agonizing lament serves to remind worshipers that God’s children don’t always feel God’s nearness. In fact, those who preach and teach it might explore with worshipers how a profession of faith in God might almost heighten a Christian sufferer’s misery. After all, if God didn’t call people to himself, misery could be seen as just a bad break. If God weren’t sovereign, one might view the attacks of other people very differently. If God hadn’t intervened to save others from attacks similar to the ones Psalm 22 describes, the poet might not feel so anguished that God has done nothing to alleviate her own misery.
In fact, this points to a possible interpretive approach to Psalm 22, one that might, admittedly, be a bit “out there.” What if, as one worshiper posited, Psalm 22’s lament is less a profession of faith than the psalmist’s angry cry? What if the psalmist is trying to hold God accountable, first for drawing the poet into a relationship with the Lord, then basically abandoning the poet to his own devices? How might it shape preaching and teaching to suggest that the poet is angry that God saved her ancestors but refuses to do the same for her? What if the psalmist is saying she’ll “fulfill her vows” to God even though God hasn’t kept God’s end of the bargain? Of course the whole world, even those not yet unborn, will praise the Lord (26-31). But the psalmist wonders if he’ll survive to join them.
To the poet, after all, God feels far farther away than his misery. In fact, he speaks twice of God’s distance, a distance that doesn’t seem to fit well, as Brent Strawn notes, with the psalmist’s constant prayers, profession of faith or God’s kindness to his ancestors. The poet also describes God as being hard of hearing. He feels like someone who constantly makes phone calls throughout the day and night but gets only a busy signal. This feels in stark contrast to the experience of the poet’s ancestors to whose prayers God often quickly said “yes.” On top of that, while the poet speaks constantly to the Lord in prayer, God seems silent, quite simply, untrustworthy in the context of the poet’s current mess.
In fact, even her enemies feel far closer to the poet than God. After all, they don’t just mock and insult her; they also surround her. Mays notes that those enemies seem to fill in vacuum that God has left by going far away. The poet’s encircling enemies feel like wild animals to her. They’re like ravenous lions or rabid dogs that are just waiting to pounce on and kill her. As a result, the psalmist feels as if her enemies have reduced her to something less than human.
Yet the poet intersperses his shouts of anguish with cries of faith. So those who preach and teach Psalm 22 will want to note how often the psalmist makes use of the words “yet” or “but.” They’ll also want to explore how often life seems to pivot between the experiences the poet describes before and after them. So, for example, in verses 2-4 the poet says, “O God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One … In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them” [italics added].
So what’s going on with this and three more of Psalm 22’s similar roller coaster rides of anguish and faith? Is this psalm reminiscent of worshipers’ own daily experiences with a God who alternately feels close by and far away? Is the psalmist perhaps waffling in her faith? Or, as Brent Strawn posits, is the psalmist simply underlining the severity of his plight by weaving professions of faith together with complaint to make the complaint “extralong”?
The psalmist is clearly in some kind of deep trouble that she ascribes not just to her ravenous enemies, but also to the God to whom she cries. After all, in verse 15c the poet seems to address the Lord when she notes “you lay me in the dust of death” [italics added].
Yet the poet’s memories of God’s faithfulness are deep-seated. She remembers how God rescued her ancestors when they trustingly called to God for help. The poet also remembers how God has taken care of her throughout her life, right from the time she was born.
Perhaps that’s why the poet’s “extralong” (in Strawn’s words) description of his determination to praise God and the spread of that praise is so appropriate. He envisions a day when not just he, but also the whole world, including those not yet born, will join him in praising the Sovereign Lord – sometimes not because of God’s faithfulness, but in spite of God’s apparent abandonment.
In the 1920s Thomas A. Dorsey was among the first writers of a genre that people eventually labeled “gospel songs.” In the 1930’s he travelled all over the United States to share his remarkable work. However, in August, 1932, Dorsey’s wife died very suddenly while the songwriter was on the road. The next day his newborn son also died.
Dorsey later lamented the injustice he felt that God had done him. He didn’t want to serve the Lord anymore by writing gospel songs. However, alone in a music room at Poro College, Dorsey recounts, “I began to browse over the keys like a gentle herd pasturing on tender turf… As my fingers began to manipulate over the keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock.”
Then and there Dorsey wrote the words that have provided a voice for so many people who feel God has forsaken them: “Precious Lord take my hand,/ lead me on, Let me stand,/ I am tired, I am weak, I am worn./ Through the storm, through the night,/ lead me on to the light./ Take my hand Precious Lord,/ lead me home.”
Author: Stan Mast
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.