March 15, 2021
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 51:1-12 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 (one is tempted to quote to Jesus the old Sunday school song “This Little Light of Mine” and the line, “Hide it under a bushel? No!”).
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 2021 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. Upham is not even worth killing—he has died on the inside anyway. In the gut-wrenching sobs that Upham then heaves forth, you sense this is true. 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: Stan Mast
This remarkably sunny text may seem a peculiar choice for the dark journey of Lent, unless we see it in the light of theme of covenant on which the RCL has been focusing during this Lenten season.
We began with God’s covenant with Noah and all of nature, the covenant on which all life on earth depends. Then we moved to God’s covenant with Abraham, the center of God’s saving work for and through Israel. Our next stop was a Mount Sinai, where God gave Israel the covenant Law by which they could lead the kind of liberated lives that would attract the world to their God. Last week we stopped in the wilderness where Israel radically broke that covenant and God renewed it with a snake lifted up on a pole, a foreshadowing of Christ on the Cross. All who looked on the snake were healed of snakebite.
Here we have the promise of something better than physical life, better than family and land, better than Law etched in stone, better than healing—the promise of a new covenant based on forgiveness, forgiveness so thorough that God will even forget our sins. This changes everything. It promises a new beginning just when we need it the most.
The last time I wrote on this text (almost a year and a half ago), no one could have imagined where we would be today. No one had ever heard about COVID-19 and the havoc it would wreak on the world. No one would have believed a prediction about the fracturing of American democracy by a contentious political campaign that put us on the brink of civil war. No one could have foreseen the floods and the fires and the storms that have given us a present-time foretaste of the climate catastrophes many doomsday prophets have warned us about for years. No one could have anticipated the depression and despair all of this would bring to millions of people. I think it is safe to say that we all long for a new beginning.
That is surely how Israel of Jeremiah’s day felt. Written around the time of the Exile, this prophecy is filled with words of gloom and doom for its first 29 chapters. The Northern Kingdom had been gone for 150 years now, and Judah was only months away from a devastation no one could have imagined. Nebuchadnezzar is at the city gates and the world is about to come to a violent end. Now, out of the blue, comes a prophetic word about a whole new beginning, a new covenant even. Just when it seemed that all was lost and it was over forever, God intervenes again and makes promises that change everything.
God says in effect, these times are awful, but these days aren’t the only days you’ll ever know. Four times God points ahead to better days: “in those days,” the days are coming,” “the time is coming,” “after that time.”
With doom at the door, it was very hard for Judah to believe that there could be any hope at any time. Thus, God emphasizes over and over that the words being spoken to them by Jeremiah were in fact God’s own word. Five times we read that the preceding words come from the very mouth of God with this formula– “declares the Lord.”
The word of the Lord in these verses has two parts, the first having to do with Israel’s return from exile (verses 27-30), the second focusing on the new covenant with Israel after that return (verses 31-34).
This is the first and only place the Old Testament speaks explicitly of a “new” covenant. Yes, God’s covenant with his people had been renewed and restated many times in the Old Testament. I just mentioned God’s covenants with Noah, with Abraham, and with Moses. And think of the great covenant renewals after Israel’s sin with the golden calf in Exodus 34 and as Israel entered the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 29. But this is a whole new covenant.
Well, not entirely new. In verse 33, God repeats the very center of the Abrahamic covenant; “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” That covenant relationship will continue. Even the horror of the Exile did not break that relationship, though it certainly seemed to them that God had forsaken them.
But there are several new features/promises in the new covenant. “It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt….” Clearly a reference to the Mosaic covenant that was anchored in the Exodus and expressed in Torah, those words of verse 32 do not mean that the new covenant isn’t anchored in God’s redemptive action and has nothing to do with Torah.
Rather, as the next words say, the newness has to do with the possibility of breaking the covenant. Though Yahweh was a loving and faithful husband to his covenant partner (verse 32), that partner broke that covenant again and again by disobeying Torah. In the new covenant, Israel (whether the Jewish people or the New Israel that is the church) will not be able to break covenant as their forefathers did. Israel could break the old covenant because it was based on Torah obedience. The new covenant will be based on forgiveness which will cancel disobedience and make covenant breaking impossible.
That doesn’t mean that Torah won’t matter in the new covenant. Indeed, rather than having to obey a law written on stone tablets, God’s people will actually have that law written on their hearts. “I will put my law in their mind and write it upon their hearts.” Despite all the Pauline warnings about misuse of law, the new covenant does not reject God’s Torah. Instead that law is injected into God’s people. Or as Ezekiel puts it, God will put a new heart and a right spirit in his people so they will desire to do God’s will and be able to do it. As Romans 8:1-4 says, this promise was fulfilled by the gift of the Holy who enables us to obey God’s law and produces the fruit of a Christ-like life.
That Spirit is also the explanation of the promise of verse 34 that “they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest.” Some have taken these words about not needing to teach each other as an argument against teaching and preaching. But what it really means is that the Spirit is our ultimate teacher. “He will lead you into all the truth.” “It is the Spirit crying ‘Abba, Father….’” We come to a deep relational knowledge of God through the work of the Spirit. Israel never arrived at that kind of knowledge in spite of all her prophets and priests. Through her prophets and priests, Israel came to know about God. Through the work of the Spirit, we can come to know God as intimately as a married couple know each other.
That new knowledge of God will be based on God’s forgiveness. Israel knew God as creator and deliverer, as lawgiver and judge, as provider and punisher, but in the new covenant God’s people will know their God first of all as a forgiver and forgetter. That is not to say that forgiveness is unknown in the old covenant; a quick look at God’s seminal revelation of himself in Exodus 34:6,7 will prove that. But in the new covenant forgiveness will be the distinguishing action of God. Never again will the sins of God’s people be punished as with the Exile. Now they will be forgiven and forgotten.
John Goldingay summarizes: “the act of forgiveness that Yahweh will now undertake in restoring his people after the collapse of the covenant will break into their spirits in a wholly new way. They will know themselves as an extraordinarily loved and forgiven people. That will change them inside and make them respond to Yahweh in a way they never have before.”
All of that will be true because of the sacrifice of Christ, says Hebrews 8 and 10, where Jeremiah 31:31-34 are quoted at length. Interestingly, the word “make” in verse 31 means literally “cut,” which harks back to Genesis 15 where the making of the covenant with Abraham was concluded with the cutting of animals and God passing between them symbolically. In the new covenant, the cutting that sealed the covenant will have to do not with the sacrifice of an animal, but with the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:11-17). Because of his sacrifice, sins are forgiven and forgotten. There is no more sacrifice or punishment for sins that have been forgiven for the sake of Christ. With this truth, we connect with the season of Lent and anticipate our reading for next week, which focuses on the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.
Some of the promises of Jeremiah 31 were fulfilled when Israel returned from Exile. Others had to wait for the days when Jesus died on the cross and then sent the Spirit. But complete fulfillment remains until the final coming of God in Christ. The sad fact is that even with the Spirit within, we still don’t obey Torah completely. And even with Christ showing us the Father, we still don’t know God fully. And even understanding the sacrifice of the cross, we still don’t receive forgiveness internally all the time. So, there is still a time coming (“in those days”) when the new covenant will be fulfilled completely in all God’s children.
COVID has turned my wife and me into occasional binge watchers of TV. Sometimes it isn’t a waste of time. For example, I was struck by a comment made by a brawny male nurse named Kenny on a TV show called “Night Shift.” He and another nurse were lamenting the sorry state of their lives and the other nurse asked Kenny, “If you could go back and start your life over, when would you begin again?” Without missing a beat, Kenny said, “October 12, 1999.” “Why that date?” “Because that was the day I wrecked my knee and ended my chances to play professional football. Because of that, I’m a nurse, rather than a member of the NFL.” In our text, new beginnings are not tied to going back to the good old days. Rather, our new beginning is rooted in God’s promise of a new future based on what God will do through Jesus and the Spirit. We can’t recover the past, but we can be renewed in every way by God’s new grace.
The promise of forgiveness that forgets reminded me of a book entitled Amish Grace. It’s about the horrific murders of a number of Amish girls by a man who must have been a monster. But even more, it’s about the way the Amish community forgave that monster. The whole country was so shocked by their forgiveness that the authors of the book spend the last part of it probing forgiveness.
In their investigation, they discovered that there are levels or stages of forgiveness. There’s the speaking of the words, “I forgive you,” even if you don’t feel anything positive toward the sinner. There’s the act of treating him differently- not holding the sin against him. There’s the actual acceptance of the sinner into your circle of affection. But, the writers point out, even with forgiveness, there can still be a desire to see justice done toward the offender. And, it is unlikely that the victims of such a horrific crime as that mass murder will ever be able to actually forget it.
All of which we can understand. Which makes the promise of Jeremiah 31:34 almost incomprehensible to us. How can an omniscient, perfectly just Judge, who loves his children with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3) ever forget the sins committed against and by them? It’s amazing and impossible apart from the sacrifice of Christ.
Author: Scott Hoezee
This semester I am a co-instructor in my seminary’s Psalms & Wisdom Literature course. Last week I did a class session on tips for preaching the Psalms. One warning I always give—based on past experience with student sermons that went off the rails—is never to preach the superscriptions. Whether it is simply the common superscription “Of David” or one that refers to the origin of a given psalm as the time when David hid in a cave from King Saul or the time when David was fleeing his son Absalom, the fact is that the superscriptions were not original to the Hebrew text of the Psalter.
They were added later, and I don’t know of any tradition that regards the superscriptions as part of the inspired text. Probably they were someone’s guess as to when a certain psalm could have been written. And there may have been a longer tradition behind those guesses and some of them could even be correct. But I tell my students to not get distracted by the superscriptions because sometimes it leads them to exegete the actual psalm incorrectly even as more commonly the student turns to the story referred to in the superscription and ends up preaching a 1 Kings sermon when the assignment was to preach a Psalms sermon. If you get hung up on the story referenced in the superscription, you may conveniently end up ignoring the parts of the actual psalm that don’t quite fit the narrative. And that often leads to a misinterpretation of the psalm.
As superscriptions go, however, the one attached to Psalm 51takes the prize for its length and specificity. It also names one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament and so rings lots of bells in our heads when we read this heading. Of course it could have been true that David may have penned words like these after the prophet Nathan hit David squarely between the eyes for his sins of adultery and murder. And, of course, as a penitential psalm of confession, that also means these words well fit any one of our lives at certain moments when we, too, surprise ourselves at how nasty or sinful we can be.
But if you preach on Psalm 51, let the words of the actual poem be the substance of the sermon without layering over a completely different narrative about Bathsheba. As a matter of fact, making Psalm 51 be that specific might even be a way to allow some listeners to let themselves off this psalm’s hook. Having an affair resulting in a child and then leading to arranging the actual husband’s death is the kind of thing The Sopranos is made of, not our typical daily lives. I may be sinful but goodness gracious! Not like what David did that time!
So let’s just see how the psalm itself addresses not our uncommon acts of evil but our common, everyday nature and proclivities so that we don’t have a chance to pretend that these words apply only to really big crimes.
Among the reasons not to get too hung up on the Bathsheba incident is that there is every indication in Psalm 51 that the poet is not focused on just one particular sin or act. We are mostly in the realm of the plural here: transgressions, iniquities. Even where just the word “sin” is used, it seems likely this is meant as a broad term for all of our sinfulness and not an isolated action or sequence of sins restricted to some very specific circumstances. The psalmist is talking about an abiding proclivity to do things wrong, to turn away from what we deep down know is God’s will for our lives and for this world.
This tendency to sin—what the church has traditionally called “Original Sin”—is laid out quite clearly as being something in which each of us was conceived and in whose fallen state each of us comes into the world at birth. Psalm 51 is one of key places in the Bible that dispenses with sunny notions that people are basically good or that we learn sin only by imitation (a la Pelagius). Left to our own devices from Day 1 onward we are prone to make bad, selfish choices that vandalize the shalom for which God made this world. We are born bent.
One part of the psalm that may not resonate as well with some of us as we might like is the line “For I know my sin and my transgression is always before me.” If only we were so self-aware! Yes, there are many times when we do or say or imagine something wrong and we know it. We apologize to the people we hurt. We ask God for forgiveness in Christ. There are even some past sins that haunt us. Even if we believe God long ago forgave us, we don’t always forgive ourselves as readily and on certain things we surely cannot forget that we once did such-and-such a bad thing. But on the whole, a lot of what God would likely deem sinful about us is not always “before” us. Wise Christians know to ask God to forgive ALL our sins, whether we are aware of every breach of shalom we committed or not.
Psalm 51 testifies to the wisdom behind that very short but very astute “Jesus Prayer.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Short, sweet, accurate. And it is basically Psalm 51 in a dozen-word nutshell.
Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2021 Lent and Easter page.
Theologian Miroslav Volf once pondered the shape and nature of life with God in what we often call “heaven.” Volf speculated that even in our renewed state, the memory of what was bad in this world may still be there. Perhaps our conscious awareness of the good will require our being able to contrast good with evil. In other words, we will know what evil is, but we will never choose to do it because, as Volf writes, the love of God will so continually flood into our hearts that we will never have time or desire for anything else.
Our explorations of God’s New Creation, our sheer, unalloyed delight in one another, will provide a rich kaleidoscope of multi-layered and ever-changing patterns of joy. This will be a life so interesting, so filled with abiding curiosity to see what is around the next corner of God’s universe, that the thought of spoiling this will not occur to us.
Author: Doug Bratt
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. However, Hebrews 5 insists that the only way that can happen is if God does it.
We’re sometimes angered to hear our various leaders reveal their sinfulness. Those who proclaim Hebrews 5 might invite our hearers into a consideration of that by listing some of our politicians, business leaders and various entertainers who have revealed their fallenness. But we should also move on from there to ask why those leaders’ sins surprise any of us. After all, leaders as well as those we lead all have fallen far short of God’s glory.
One way God repaired the ruptured 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.
Yet Hebrews 5 insists that even the most godly high priests’ relationships with the Lord were strained. In part because of that, Jesus both repaired his friends’ relationship with God and continues to intercede before God on our behalf. As a result, God’s adopted sons and daughters believe we no longer need high priests.
However, Christians still have people whom we sometimes think of 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 loves.
Opposition to Israel’s 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. Yet things haven’t changed much among modern religious leaders.
Almost 35 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 and teachers had to offer sacrifices for our sins, we wouldn’t have any time left over to do things like prepare sermons and lessons.
Of course, mediators can always point to mediators who are more flawed than us. More than 130 people accused the former priest John Geoghan of assaulting them during a 30-year rampage through six Boston Roman Catholic 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 mediators with God sometimes make a mess of our relationships 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 God’s Son the job as our high priest (5-6). Yet Hebrews’ Preacher clearly wants readers 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 God’s dearly beloved people in our weakness. After all, Jesus shared our flesh and blood.
To emphasize that, Hebrews’ Preacher describes Jesus’ suffering in powerful 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 both Hebrews 5’s proclaimers and hearers have offered up loud cries in hospital rooms and funeral homes over the suffering and deaths of loved ones and strangers. We’ve prayed and cried about the serious illness and decline of people we love and like.
Perhaps in the last year we’ve especially grieved the wide swath of devastation the COVID-19 pandemic has cut. The cries of the world for the virus’ 2.5 plus million victims plus countless more people who have suffered from its various affects are almost deafening.
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 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. The crucified Jesus, after all, didn’t respond to his agony 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.
Of course, Jesus didn’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 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). He was, after all, always perfectly obedient. Yet some scholars suggest that Hebrews’ Preacher means that Jesus came to fully 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 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” may seem to contradict our assumptions about salvation by 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. Jesus’ friends are 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 with my dying mom when she went to bed went in each night 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 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, 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 this Hebrews 5’s proclaimers’ exploration of it.