March 12, 2018
The Lent 5B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 12:20-33 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 31:31-34 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 119:9-16 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Hebrews 5:1-10 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 90 (Lord’s Day 33)
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Sir, we would see Jesus.” With all due apologies to the many pastors out there who need to be addressed as “Ma’am” and not “Sir,” those of us who preach in various churches have seen those words—lifted up out of John 12:21—emblazoned on pulpits, often on a small brass plate visible to the preacher alone. The first time I saw this upon stepping into a pulpit when I was a seminarian, I was tempted to sit back down. It looked like that church had been expecting somebody else!
“Sir, we would see Jesus.” It was some Greeks who first said this line. Probably they said it in Greek, too, which is why they approached a disciple who had a Greek name and who had grown up in a town, Bethsaida, that had a mixed population of Jews and Greeks. Maybe these seekers didn’t speak Aramaic and so needed to find the one disciple they knew could interpret for them. It is not clear whether these Greek-speaking people were Jewish converts or Gentiles who had come to Jerusalem to take in the Passover sights and sounds. But whoever they were, they had heard of Jesus and wanted an introduction.
That hardly made them unique at that precise moment. Jesus was rumored to have raised a man named Lazarus from the dead. The man had been moldering in a tomb for four days already when this rabbi from Nazareth reportedly called him out. Amazing! Perhaps this is why John’s gospel presents the New Testament’s single most understated account of the Triumphal Entry. That entry was an important event to be sure, but in John the recent raising of Lazarus looms much larger, including for these Greek strangers. They simply must see the man who could do what Jesus recently did.
So they make their request to Philip, who in turn pulls his brother Andrew into the action as well. The two of them then go to Jesus and ask him, “Lord, do you have a minute? Some Greek tourists want your autograph or something.”
But it is just here where the story makes an odd turn. There is no indication that Jesus paid much attention to Philip or Andrew; no indication he ever meets the very people who first said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Indeed, there is a quirky irony that in verse 21 there is a request to see Jesus and yet in verse 36 (just beyond where this lection technically ends), we are told that Jesus hid himself from those Greeks and everyone else–indeed, in John’s gospel Jesus will not appear in public again until he does so nailed to a cross.
Why would Jesus hide?
Why would he duck away from some earnest seekers? Because Jesus’ “hour” had come. The time to see him had come and gone. Now it was time for him to be “hidden” in death, which is just what Jesus goes on to say. “My heart is troubled.” And then he says that it’s time to die, time to go the way of a kernel of wheat so that greater fruitfulness could be generated.
Well, the crowds didn’t like this one bit. “Hold up there a sec,” they all shout in verse 34, “we’ve always been taught that when Messiah showed up, he’d remain with us forever. So what’s all this talk about death and departures? Do you want to be the Christ or don’t you?”
In reply Jesus says something about light and darkness, something I’m sure not one person in ten understood. And no sooner does the Light of the world, say this and he hides. So far as we know, the Greeks who asked to see Jesus never did. It’s another one of those delicious ironies involving a verse lifted out of context for other uses.
But suppose a few days later those same Greeks passed by that scarecrow figure impaled on a spit of wood at Skull Hill. Jesus couldn’t hide himself from anyone that day. He was on public display, literally nailed down at last. Conversely, however, Jesus could not go to anyone himself, either. You had to come to him that day if you wanted to see him. The question is: would anyone bother, would anyone dare, could anyone stomach the sight?
“When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus predicted in verse 32. Just in case we were tempted to think that this “lifting up” meant the glory of Easter or the Ascension or something, John inserts his own voice into the text once again in verse 33 to remind us that it was his raw and hideous death Jesus was referring to there.
Jesus would draw all people to himself on that cross, but would anyone come? Would anyone let themselves be drawn, or would they hide their faces, turn aside, run away, look for someone else who appeared to be going somewhere worth following? “Sir, we would see Jesus” the Greeks said to Philip. In a way, everything Jesus said in verses 23-36 was an extended answer to that request, as though Jesus were saying to these Greeks, “It’s OK that you want to see me, but wait a few days. I invite you to come and see me Friday afternoon. You won’t be able to miss me. You’ll know me when you see me. I’ll be the suffering and dying one. But I hope you’ll come by to see me anyway.”
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
As Richard Burridge helpfully points out in the Eerdmans The Lectionary Commentary (2001), John employs a bit of a double-entendre here in John 12 even as he did in last week’s Gospel lection from John 3. The Greek verb hypsoun means both “exalted” and (more literally) “lifted up.” The typical image you would get from a verse like John 12:32 of someone being lifted up in exaltation would be like what you often see at a baseball game after a pitcher throws the final pitch in what proves to be a no-hitter game. His teammates swarm the pitcher’s mound, lift the jubilant man to their collective shoulders, and so exalt his achievement as they carry him off the field. Jesus, of course, has a rather different idea as to what kind of “lifting up” will lead to his exaltation (and it is by no means what you would at first expect!).
According to an old adage, the brave man tastes death but once whereas the coward tastes death many times. In the movie Saving Private Ryan we see this proverbial dynamic at work. Most of the soldiers in that story are stout of heart. They have passed through many harrowing battles but without regret because they know they conducted themselves well. Although some of these brave men die before the story is finished, nevertheless up until that final fatal moment, they had not experienced the kind of psychological death that is exhibited over and over by the character of Corporal Upham.
Upham was a translator in a safe clerical position before getting swept up into the real war. But this young, naive, and innocent corporal was unprepared for combat and so regularly froze up in terror. In one of the film’s most excruciating scenes, Upham is seen cowering on a staircase, paralyzed by fear, even as he listens to the death cries of one of his comrades who is being slowly killed by a German soldier at the top of the stairs. His cowardice prevents Upham from saving his friend’s life. After the man is dead, the German who killed him casually walks past Upham on the steps. Upham is such a pathetic figure that the enemy just leaves him alone. In the gut-wrenching sobs that Upham then heaves forth, you sense that in a real way this man is dying on the inside. The brave man tastes death just once, the coward dies again and again.
That’s how we usually think in this world. So what are we to make of Jesus’ words in John 12 that indicate that not only does death produce life, followers of Jesus will lead lives of self-denial and perpetual death in their Christ-like efforts to bring more life to the world, too? The gospel so often goes in different directions from the rest of the world. Do we preachers always remember this, though? Perhaps it is the brave person who faces death every day for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the Gospel.
Author: Doug Bratt
When I was in Sunday School, we sang, “Into my heart,/ come into my heart, Lord Jesus./ Come in today,/ come in to stay,/ come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” As we sang, we imagined Jesus standing and knocking as long it takes for us to faithfully open the door to and invite him into our hearts.
That, however, is a hardly a picture of the God of our text. After all, Jeremiah 31’s God seems to be sick of knocking on people’s hearts and waiting in vain for them to invite God in. Hearts are naturally so hardened toward God that no one, on their own, asks the Lord “into” them.
The Jerusalem in which so many of Jeremiah 31’s spiritually hard hearts live is about to fall to Babylonian invaders. Its conquerors are preparing to haul off many of those concrete hearts to Babylon. David’s descendants will no longer serve as Israel’s kings. Jerusalem’s temple will soon lie in ruins.
For most of Jeremiah, the prophet basically tells Israel, “You had all this coming, and this is why.” Essentially, the prophet insists, Israel deserves her fate because she has broken every covenant God ever made with her.
However, God and Jeremiah are particularly frustrated with Israel’s stubborn refusal to keep her part of the covenant God made with her at Mt. Sinai. There God graciously showed Israel how to faithfully receive God’s grace by living as God’s obedient children. God even inscribed that guide to thankful living on two stone tablets. On them the Lord essentially invited the Israelites to remember to love God above all and their neighbors as themselves.
Israel, however, doggedly refused to live up to her part of the covenant. She sampled from a whole buffet line of gods. And even when Israelites did worship the living God, they used images of God to do so. So Israel ignored the very first two words of her covenant with God.
Yet the Israelites failed not only to be faithful to the God of heaven and earth, but also to each other. They neglected to love each other as much as they loved themselves. Israel especially failed to love the most vulnerable citizens among her.
Yet that’s not just Israel’s problem. You and I confess that it’s also ours’. Our gods, as Martin Luther once famously pointed out, are whatever or whoever is most important to us. We naturally serve not the living God, but everything from our own desires to wealth. You and I also naturally love ourselves far more than we love the people around us, especially people on society’s margins and our enemies.
So when God stands knocking at the door to our hearts, begging us to let God be our God, God’s people still naturally lock God out. If it were up to us, we’d never let God make himself our God and us God’s children. On top of all that, we’d never even naturally ask God to unlock our locked and dead-bolted hearts.
However, in Jeremiah 31, the crusty old prophet of doom and gloom, says “But that was then. This is now. God’s going to make a new covenant with Israel.” He announces that God will write this new covenant not on tablets of stone or even pieces of paper, but on people’s hearts.
Of course, that sounds both painful and dangerous. We might think of it as God tattooing God’s law on us. However, since tattoos have now gone fairly mainstream, people ahead of trends are being branded. So we might think of God as branding God’s covenant onto our hearts. We can almost imagine the ghastly smell God would create by burning God’s law onto our hearts.
Thankfully, then, Jeremiah isn’t talking about God literally branding God’s law onto beating hearts. He’s, instead, talking about God’s Spirit implanting God’s law in that mysterious center of people from which our desires flow.
Yet there’s still something very painful about God’s writing God’s law on our hearts. God is, after all, determined to soften God’s adopted sons and daughters’ hearts toward the Lord. However, for that to happen, sinful practices and loyalties must die. And since you and I can’t somehow overcome our naturally rebellious natures, God must put that part of us that is selfish and self-centered to death.
In God’s adopted sons and daughters’ sinful selves’ place God promises to put hearts and minds that God softens toward God alone. God vows to fill hard hearts with a longing to receive God as God. That is, in fact, one of the benefits of Jesus’ resurrection. In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed Christians profess that God raised Jesus from the dead so that “by his power we too are already now resurrected to a new life.”
In that new life Jeremiah promises that God’s children will “know the Lord.” There’s a lot to such knowledge. After all, as one colleague notes, I may know that eating three bowls of ice cream every night is unhealthy. But that knowledge does me little good unless I act on it.
In a similar way, Jeremiah promises that a day is coming when God’s people will know God’s law. However, he also promises that they’ll also commit themselves to obeying it by loving God above all and their neighbors as themselves. God will empower God’s adopted sons and daughters to be both willing and able to obey God’s commands to do justice. In fact, Jeremiah insists, God’s children will no longer even have to teach each other about God. Everyone will already know about and serve the Lord.
God bases this new covenant about which Jeremiah speaks on God’s extraordinary grace. Of course, God related to Israel by grace since the very beginning. Yet the prophet’s Israel has stubbornly refused to receive that grace with her faithful obedience. So God promises to fundamentally change her, to fully equip her to receive God’s grace with her faith. The Israelites will come to recognize themselves as beloved and forgiven.
Jeremiah is speaking of a day when Israel will obey God’s law not because she’s supposed to, but because she wants to. She’ll long to obey God’s law because God has shaped her hearts and minds that way. So Israel’s capacity to be faithful and obedient will spring not from some outside constraints, but from the inside. They’ll do the right thing because they want to do it.
So God’s greatest miracle may not be God’s parting of the Red Sea or rescue of Jonah from the whale. The greatest miracle may be that God softens stony human hearts, that God equips God’s children to want to do the right thing.
While I attended and after I graduated from college, I worked in a Christian facility that houses teenaged wards of the state. In the unit where I worked someone had to unlock doors for the resident teenagers to get nearly everywhere.
Those young people were in such a restricted environment because they’d proven to be largely unable to handle freedom. So workers tried everything to convince them to use their freedom wisely. We imposed stiff punishments for wrong behavior and give rewards for good behavior.
Yet I never saw any of those adolescents really change because of punishments or rewards. They sometimes changed their ways to avoid punishment and gain rewards. But they never really wanted to be good people – unless God had changed their hearts.
Of course, it isn’t just what we used to call juvenile delinquents whose hearts God needs to soften. After all, even with the Holy Spirit living in God’s people, we too fail to live as faithfully obediently as God has equipped us to live.
That’s why Jeremiah insists those days of complete and faithful obedience aren’t fully here yet. We see a partial fulfillment of his promise after Judah’s return from Babylonian exile. The people of Judah do, in fact, at least begin to acknowledge the Lord alone. They give up worshiping images of God.
In Jesus Christ, of course, Jeremiah’s prophecy finds further fulfillment. After all, in John 12:32 Jesus says that “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.” In other words, when the authorities crucify Jesus, God writes God’s law on people’s hearts not just in Israel, but also across the world.
However, Jeremiah’s prophecy still awaits its complete fulfillment. After all, in Romans 11:27 the apostle Paul suggests that God has not yet totally fulfilled the prophet’s promise. Those who proclaim Jeremiah 31 might want to explore with hearers evidence of that incompleteness.
Yet God has already done a great thing by giving God’s adopted sons and daughters the gift of the Holy Spirit who writes that new covenant on our hearts. God’s Holy Spirit already equips us to both desire to and keep God’s law. So those who proclaim Jeremiah 31 might also share concrete examples that branding of God’s law onto people’s hearts.
We can thank God for signs that while God still has work to do, God has already branded hearts with a longing to love God and each other. However, we also gladly anticipate that day when God will do that great thing fully as we serve the Lord gladly in the new creation.
There are countless signs that God hasn’t yet completely fulfilled Jeremiah 31’s prophecy. They include the racial divisions that continue to plague countless countries, including the United States and Canada.
Yet once in a while we catch a glimpse of God’s new covenant at work. I think of a white woman who was a member of a historically segregated church in rural southern Virginia. A car full of drunken, joyriding black teenagers struck and killed her teenaged son.
Yet she told one of my acquaintances, “I don’t understand why I don’t hate those drunken kids.” The grieving mother then paused before adding, “I guess God has given me a forgiving heart. All things are possible with God.”
A few years ago a band of white teenagers brutally attacked and killed Jean Sandiford’s black son Michael in Howard Beach, Brooklyn, New York. His mom, whom people saw reading her Bible during their trial, admits that even the passage of time hasn’t yet erased her pain.
“Sometimes I sit here and cry,” Jean admits. Yet when talking about the three men who are still in prison for the murder, she says “At night I pray for them. I ask God to forgive them.”
Author: Stan Mast
The Revised Common Lectionary has two suggestions from the Psalter for this Fifth Sunday of Lent—Psalm 51:1-12 and Psalm 119:9-16. Psalm 51 is, of course, the quintessential Lenten Psalm, full of guilt and contrition because a terrible sin has been committed by a man who was sinful from birth. Psalm 119 is all about how a young man can stay completely pure by a deep and continual focus on and obedience of the law of God. Which shall we focus on as we journey to the cross?
My automatic, almost default, choice is Psalm 51. It clearly fits the mood and emphasis of Lent better. Besides, it seems more relevant to the life I live and to my Reformed theology which can be a bit heavy on sin and forgiveness and justification. I can identify with the David who wrote Psalm 51. No, I don’t have a Bathsheba, but I know what it is to sin and to crave forgiveness.
But then I read Psalm 119 and I wonder if I have given in too easily to the presence and power of sin. Have I given up on the possibility of living a pure life in which I take delight not only in forgiveness, but also in obedience. A sermon on Psalm 119 would take us in an entirely different direction—not to Good Friday, but to Pentecost.
I mean that a sermon on Psalm 119:9-16 would dwell not on sin and forgiveness, but on the obedience guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit after forgiveness, ala Romans 8:3-4. “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit.”
The problem with preaching on the Psalm 119 text is its focus on the beauty and blessing of God’s law. Many of your listeners, indeed, many of you preachers will be negatively disposed toward any mention of law, not only culturally, but also theologically. Our culture is at least ambivalent about laws; we complain about too many rules and regulations and we prize our freedom to do what we want. And theologically, we have been shaped by Paul’s often negative comments about by God’s Law. We’re afraid of a legalism that leads to a works’ righteousness. We want to guard our freedom from the Law as a way of salvation, ala Galatians 5. We are concerned about the repressive force of law in the hands of preachers and politicians who want more law and order.
Psalm 119 reminds us of the other side of the debate over law. On the cultural side, one of the things that makes Western democracies so great is that we are societies of law. And that guarantees our liberties in many ways. As the quasi-hymn, “America the Beautiful,” puts it, we find our “liberty in law.” And theologically, the same Paul, who strongly condemned law-keeping as a way of salvation, completely agreed with Jesus that God’s law is “holy and righteous and good (Romans 7:12).”
Psalm 119 is on that positive side of the Bible’s talk about law. Indeed, it is one long, complex, and beautiful paean of praise to God for the Law he gave. God gave that law in order to bring joy to his people by telling them how to live as liberated people. It is interesting that both Psalm 51 and Psalm 119 have that same goal—to bring joy to God’s people. Psalm 51:12 prays, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation,” while Psalm 119:14 gushes, “I rejoice in following your statutes.” I want to suggest that for this Sunday of Lent, we focus not first of all on recovering the joy of salvation, on the joy of forgiveness, but on living joyful lives by following God’s law, on the joy of obedience. Let’s take people to the cross by a different road.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that a sermon on this reading from Psalm 119 will be almost shockingly counter-cultural in many ways. Look at the opening question. “How can a young man keep his way pure?” Apart from the apparently masculine bias of the question (something not really intended by the text), the emphasis on purity will sound like old-fashioned puritanism to many. We are passionate about many things in our society, but purity is not one of them. Young men (and women), the famed millennials, care about environmental issues, about sexual politics, about materialism, about racism and poverty, about dozens of legitimate social justice issues. Concern about personal purity is not high on anyone’s list.
What does the text mean by purity? Most will think of sex or hygiene, but the scope of purity in Psalm 119 is much wider than drinking clean water and abstaining from extra-marital intercourse. Purity means moral purity in all areas of life, being free from all moral taint. Indeed, the text defines it not in terms of society’s sexual mores or the standards of the Department of Environmental Quality, but in terms of God’s law.
So, the answer to the opening question is precisely this: “By living according to your word.” Talk about being counter-cultural! It is an unquestioned axiom in our culture that we are free to determine our own morality. As Oprah Winfrey famously said at this year’s Golden Globe awards, “The most important thing you can do is speak your truth.” Your truth. We all have our own truth and we must live by that truth and speak it into society. Oprah was, of course, speaking of the sexual abuse of women and the importance of not keeping silent about that. Tell your own story, so that it will stop. That is a very important thing to do, but I wonder if her wording was the tip of the post-modern iceberg of total relativism regarding the true and the good.
Psalm 119 says there is just one way to live a life that is morally pure, and that is to live according to God’s truth. Or as the text says, God’s “word.” The Hebrew there is one of 8 words used interchangeably in this long poem. They all refer to God’s revelation of his will, spoken to his people and recorded in a set of books and taught to his people as the very word of God. It is counter-cultural to claim that there is an objective source of truth, a truth outside of your own beliefs and decisions, a truth that is absolute and must be obeyed by everyone. But that is exactly what Psalm 119 joyfully proclaims.
Verse 10 seems to resonate better with our society when it says, “I seek you with all my heart.” We are a culture of seekers; we’re all on a journey to find something else, something more, something better. My favorite example of this seeking mentality was the wildly popular book by Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love, which chronicled her journey around the world to find happiness and fulfillment (note, not purity). “It’s all about the journey.”
Psalm 119 is remarkable for the way it ties seeking to keeping God’s law. Note the prayer right after his words about seeking. “I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.” As I seek the beautiful, the true, and the good, do not let me stray from you. The secret of not getting lost in our spiritual seeking is to stick with God’s revelation of his will in the Scripture. Here is a much needed word for our restless age.
In what follows the Psalmist gives us several strategies for sticking with his revelation. Psalm 119 doesn’t call them strategies, but that is, in effect, what they are. Verse 11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart….” Rather than just reading it, I’ve taken it into myself, into my deepest self. Can the writer be talking about memorizing Scripture, so that it is a permanent part of my heart’s furniture, a fixed way of thinking about life?
Verse 12 adds another, often overlooked strategy for pure living. Ask God to teach you his decrees. When I think about my own prayer life, I must confess that I am much occupied with interceding for loved ones and sometimes even the wider human family. I might spend some time in thanksgiving and even praise. My guilt leads me to the Psalm 51 kind of prayer. But I’m not aware that I pray for God to teach me his will, except when I’m confused about some major life decision. Then I might pray for guidance. But do I/we regularly ask God to teach us his will revealed in Scripture? Perhaps I’m only revealing something about the quality of my own prayer life, but I’m guessing that many of your listeners need to employ this strategy.
Verse 13 suggests another discipline that will help us stay pure. “With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.” The emphasis on lips and mouth is instructive. In order to live by God’s laws, we must remind ourselves that they come from God’s own mouth. If we think of Scripture as being man’s words about God, rather than God’s words to the human race, then we will easily neglect or ignore or disobey them. So, reminding ourselves that these laws come from the very mouth of God and recounting them with our own mouth will help us live by them. Whether we recount those laws in private meditation or in liturgical celebration or in a classroom setting, the mere act of saying them out loud will reinforce our obedience.
And then, finally, and perhaps most importantly, verse 15 says, “I will meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.” If we listen to and read and study and memorize Scripture, but don’t really meditate on it, it can slip away and we can wander away. It is crucial that we ponder it, roll it around in our minds, look at it from different angles, and apply it in practical ways. As Joshua 1:8 put it, referring to the habit of murmuring the words as we meditate on them: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”
I know that the above seems a bit methodical, so I’m glad that the Psalmist emphasizes how joyful obedience to God’s law can be. “I rejoice in following your statutes, as one rejoices in great riches.” “I delight in your decrees.” “Praise be to you, O Lord.” Rather than being a hard duty, an act of drudgery, or a desperate attempt to keep God happy, obedience to God’s written Word is supposed to be an act of pure joy.
So here’s a Lenten sermon that cuts across the grain. Let’s call people to the kind of steadfast obedience to the Word of God that Jesus demonstrated on his Lenten journey. “My food,” said Jesus to his disciples, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work (John 4:34).” So, writes Dr. Luke (9:51), “He set his face like flint to go up to Jerusalem” and the cross. It cost him dearly, and he “learned obedience from what he suffered…,” even though it wrung from him “loud cries and tears….” (Hebrews 5:7 and 8). But he kept going “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). Similarly, we are called to a long obedience in the same direction. Fittingly, our text for today ends with a Christ-like resoluteness. “I will not neglect your word.”
Here’s what we should say to our people as we preach on Psalm 119:9-16. Don’t let a fear of legalism or works righteousness keep you from a serious, Spirit filled attempt to live pure lives, in which we find great joy in living by the laws of God. As William Law wrote almost 300 years ago, this Psalm issues A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
You can’t end such a sermon without a call to Christ, but let the Psalm shape that call. This serious and joyful call to obedience will eventually lead us to the cross, because we will fail in our obedience. Psalm 119 reminds us that when we are forgiven because of Christ’s work, we should not take advantage of that grace and simply settle into our sinful lives. Think of how Titus describes the ultimate purpose of God’s grace in Christ. The grace of God that brings salvation “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age… our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ… gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what it good.” (Titus 2:11-14)
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
The emphasis on rejoicing as we follow God’s statutes in the same way as people rejoice in great riches reminded me of the national fever over the lottery. Recently both major nation-wide lottery games had reached half a billion dollars, and people were giddy at the prospect of becoming suddenly rich beyond imagination. Eventually someone won those lotteries and I’m sure that brought them incredible joy. The Psalmist says that his joy in being obedient is like that. What a challenge to contemporary Christians.
Most people will not naturally warm to the emphasis of Psalm 119. Many will respond to the idea of obeying God’s law as Walt Whitman did in his famous, “Song of Myself.” He envied, he wrote, the placid animals: “They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins/ They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
It should count as a bit of an irony that just beyond the end of the assigned lection in Hebrews 5 we find the writer giving his readers a bit of a rebuke. “You probably don’t understand what I just wrote,” verse 11 essentially begins, “and that’s too bad because by now you should be mature enough to get it. But you don’t. I still have to feed you infant formula instead of a nice juicy Gospel steak!”
Ouch! That’s a bit of a zinger there, and it must have stung. But I say it is ironic because truth be told, what we read in Hebrews 5:5-10 is actually . . . a little difficult! Two thousand years later and there are still some things here to make even us trained pastors scratch our heads a bit.
Here is a brief list of the possible difficulties:
— Is the writer suggesting that the person we know as Jesus became a Son at some point in a way he had not been before? Wasn’t that kind of what Arius thought? Isn’t this the Adoptionist school of Christology? And weren’t both rejected by the church long ago?
— How exactly did the Son “learn obedience” and at some point “become perfect?” Doesn’t this also mess with classic Christology on the divinity of Jesus? Weren’t the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon all over these questions?
— Aren’t we saved by grace? So why does this writer say that you get saved by being obedient?
— Where in the Gospels is there any hint that Jesus becomes a latter-day Melchizedek figure? And secondarily, given the murky nature of Melchizedek to begin with, does it really help clarify the identity of Jesus by making this comparison?
Speaking for myself, I like to think I can handle the solid food of the Gospel but . . . this passage maybe puts me back in the infant formula category after all!
Of course, Scripture interprets Scripture. This is a key element of all biblical hermeneutics. So we will not be wrong to view Hebrews 5 through a theological lens that has been created by lots of other biblical material from elsewhere in the New Testament and even in how the Church along the ages has interpreted all such matters. So for the sake of argument let’s assume that the other parts of the New Testament that clearly testify to the divinity of Jesus as the eternal Son of God are correct. Let’s stipulate that as a divine being, Jesus was perfect and though he could be tempted in his human nature, any obedience he learned was also tied in with that part of his unified person. And let’s believe that we are saved by grace but—as the Apostle James pointed out—that gracious salvation inevitably issues in a lot of obedient living to the glory of God.
Setting aside, then, any idea that these six verses vitiate the Church’s longstanding orthodox views on the person of the Messiah and his being fully divine and fully human, what can we glean from these verses as we near the end of the Lenten Season? Well, it seems that the primary thrust of this passage says at least two pretty important things: first, salvation was difficult to achieve even for God and second, a major part of that difficulty was that it inevitably involved a whole lot of suffering (again, even for the Son of God).
First, then: salvation was hard to achieve. As Neal Plantinga has often observed, biblically speaking you’d have to conclude that God’s original act of creation was a lot easier to pull off than the salvation of all that once things went south in this creation. In the beginning God spoke and, POOF, it was. Snap, snap, snap, it all came together. “Let there be . . .” God said over and over, and it was. Just like that. But not with redemption. No, God’s plan to salvage this creation took longer, involved far more people and far more steps. And before it was all finished it took the Son of God’s screaming into a cosmic void of dereliction before things turned around.
Creation got spoken into being. Salvation got shrieked into being.
Why is that? Perhaps a myriad of things could be suggested but maybe just one idea will suffice for this sermon starter: Once God made a universe of creatures with free will, he bound himself to all that and to all the complexities that would be attendant on dealing with such beings. God wanted to maintain the original integrity of all that he made and so he could not just look at the wreckage of a fallen world and decide to lay down a whole new layer of brand new blacktop to start over. You could not just pave over the wreckage. The pieces had to come back together in ways that would still honor the original intention for the whole thing. And that’s hard. Whatever else sin and evil may be, never underestimate how perilous they are, how difficult it is to extract life back out of a creation that keeps choosing death.
Second, that is why that same project of redemption involves so much suffering. Because suffering is what we wrought in our sinfulness. We alienated ourselves from our only Source of true life, from the One whose dearest desire was a cosmos of shalom and of delight and of flourishing. Having cut ourselves off from all that, the result was only misery, death, decay, entropy.
And the kicker of it all is that somehow things were not going to be made right again without the problem getting resolved from the inside out. Waving a magic wand was not going to work. Forcing one’s way into this mess from the outside was going to be oddly ineffective in the long run. The suffering that afflicts this world had to be met head on and on its own terms. It had to be absorbed by the One being who would not be consumed by it. History’s endless cycle of retaliation and vengeance had to be snapped and it could only be snapped by Someone’s absorbing all of that evil and having the enormous strength to NOT hit back and so perpetuate the sick cycle. More than that, the One who effected this salvation needed to show all the other creatures that he was not above it all, that his was a very knowing, empathetic salvation. The things that vex us, wound us, disintegrate us, and finally kill us are not unknown commodities to God now. He’s been there. Right in the middle of it all.
Salvation is finally not some other-worldly fantasy. It’s not pie in the sky by and by or some misplaced sense of optimism. No, it emerges smack from the midst of the painful realities we all know only too well. He is now the King of Righteousness—the meaning of “Melchizedek”—but only because he passed through all that suffering. No righteousness without suffering first. It is a surprising message that even God had to do it this way but tenderly comforting too.
So preach on this text for Lent. Preach it to the hurting people in your congregation who can only but be encouraged to be reminded yet again what a compassionate, empathetic Savior Jesus is. “Been there, done that” has become a quick and easy—almost flippant—way to try to express some sense of solidarity or empathy with others. But when that gets applied to no less than the Son of God—who has passed through every human travail and then some—then “Been there, done that” is magnified beyond measure to mind-numbing dimensions of divine love and care. We are never alone in our pain. Tell people that. We know we are never alone because in Lent we follow Jesus clear to that horrid cross. We see him learning that obedience of which Hebrews 5 speaks. We see him gaining for us a perfection in also his human nature that has forever eluded our grasp.
This is a hard, meaty text. It ain’t baby milk! And yet it contains something pastorally sublime and profoundly comforting. Salvation will redeem us from our suffering because first it has passed clean through all that suffering. Preach that and there won’t be an honest soul in the congregation who would not affirm how very, very badly they needed to hear exactly this message.
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
Pastor Roger VanHarn told a story in one of his books, a story that tells two truths: God refuses to brush aside our suffering and by entering into it, he saved us in a most compelling and loving way.
It seems that one December afternoon just before Christmas vacation was to begin a group of parents stood in the lobby of a preschool, waiting to claim their children. When the bell rang, the youngsters ran from the classroom, each child carrying in his or her hands a special “surprise”–a brightly wrapped package containing a project that each child had diligently been working on for weeks to give Mom and Dad for Christmas. One little boy was trying to run, put on his coat, and wave all at the same time. He slipped and fell, the “surprise” flying out of his hands and landing on the tile floor with an obvious ceramic crash. There was a moment of stunned silence which was immediately followed by the little one’s inconsolable wail of tears. The boy’s father immediately tried to be strong so as to comfort the little guy, kneeling down and saying, “It’s OK, son. It really doesn’t matter. It’s OK. It doesn’t matter.” But the boy’s mother was wiser about such things. She swept the little boy into her arms and said, “Oh, but it does matter. It matters a very, very great deal!” And she wept with her son.