October 15, 2018
The Proper 24B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 10:35-45 from the Lectionary Gospel; Job 38 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 104:1-9,24,35c from the Lectionary Psalms; and Hebrews 5:1-10 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 38 (Lord’s Day 15)
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging Into the Text:
We perhaps thought that Jesus had settled the disciple’s argument about “who is the greatest” back at Capernaum (9:33-34). But, evidently, the closer they get to Jerusalem, and the more the disciples realize that something big is going to happen, and the more they want have a major role.
Jesus has just announced, for the third time, what was going to happen in Jerusalem, and it does finally seem to be sinking in. For the first time, the the disciples are described as being “astonished” and “afraid.” I think we get a clue as to what they were thinking by the fact that Peter packed a sword when they went to that final prayer meeting on the Mount of Olives.
Another indication of their growing, but still inadequate, understanding is the question the Zebedee boys ask Jesus. I love their opening line: “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” This seems like an astonishingly bolder equivalent of the line we’ve all heard or used, “will you do me a favor?”
And Jesus, patient as ever, goes along with it: “What do you want me to do for you?” Now, it seems that the request has matured somewhat. It’s not just a question of who is the greatest, but who will be at your right and left “in your glory.” This may indicate that the disciples may have accepted the suffering part of Jesus prediction, but have now latched on to the glory part, after he will rise. When that happens, the whole world will take notice, and they want to be right there in the spotlight.
Sure, there will be some hassle, some suffering, some struggle, but then the glory. Perhaps James and John were thinking about it like a high school athlete considers the daily training regimen for the team. They did not see themselves sweat-covered and exhausted; they saw themselves holding high the victory trophy. It’s the glory.
“You don’t know what you are asking.” With this blunt reply Jesus acknowledges that for all his openness about what lay ahead, they did not really get it. He uses two familiar analogies for his suffering, a cup and a baptism.
The cup may be a reference to the foaming cup of wine in Psalm 75:8. “In the hand of the LORD is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs.” The cup reserved for the wicked of the earth is now to be drunk by the one person who is not numbered among them.
In calling the coming crucifixion his baptism, Jesus reveals the deepest meaning of baptism. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John, it was a baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” By submitting himself to John’s baptism, Jesus will “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:19). At the Jordan he stands in line with repenting sinners who need cleansing.
But in order to bring release from the captivity of sin for his human brothers and sisters, he must undergo another baptism, the baptism of his own death on the cross. In that act, he completes his work of redemption and opens up the cleansing fountain of baptism for all. It becomes the sacrament of our death and resurrection in Christ.
So Jesus asks these two eager disciples, “Can you drink that cup and undergo that baptism?” “Oh yes,” they answer. Of course, they don’t really have a clue. But Jesus ignores their lack of understanding and tells them that, yes, they will drink that cup and undergo that baptism. He is referring to whatever suffering they will endure as his disciples, the cross they must take up when they follow him. (Mark 8:34)
It’s important to notice that whenever the disciples raise up a theology of glory, Jesus offers a theology of the cross. It is the way to glory not only for Jesus, but also for his disciples. We would all like to bask in the glory of the Son of God, but in order to do that, we must first share in his ignominy.
But even then, Jesus tells them that it “is not mine to grant” who sits at his right and left in glory. To many Christians this comes as a surprising statement that can lead to the wrong conclusion, such as the idea that Jesus is in a subordinate rather than equal position to the Father. In his commentary on the parallel passage in Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner comments that the many instances of Jesus’ “ignorance” is a neglected doctrine in the church,” and urges that solid expository preaching will set it straight.
Bruner follows Luther in pointing out that the key is to understand Christ’s two natures. In his divine nature, he is one with the Father, but in his human nature, especially in his 33 years on earth, he shares our human limitations. There are things he does not know and special places he cannot grant to his disciples. Bruner says this divine/human dichotomy is similar to to the reality of the divine/human reality of Christians who are both flesh and Spirit, and even the Bible, which is both the word of God, and the words of human beings within their historical limitations.
But there is a bigger issue at stake here, the nature of the church. The disciples seem to think of themselves, and by extension, the church, in the same way that they think of the structures of society and government. It is another hierarchy where some people lord it over others. Instead, Jesus insists that “it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” Instead of a race to the top, Jesus insists on a race to the bottom, the prize of servanthood.
This is not the first time we have met this teaching in Mark, which ought to signal its importance for Jesus and the church. Here, Jesus sets himself as an example, “The Son of Man came not to be serve, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”
It’s important to note that Jesus is not declaring that all hierarchies are invalid. He acknowledges that “the Gentiles” function this way, and suggests this will continue. “But it is not so among you.” This is about the church, which begs the question whether a hierarchical church is an oxymoron.
It’s telling that in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he is often struggling with exactly this issue. It seems that the church at Corinth was impressed by the strong leadership of those with spectacular gifts and charismatic qualities. These were not Paul’s gifts, not his way. Rather, he had expended himself in serving them as an apostle without pay and without recognition.
Service, not power; self-giving, not self-seeking, is the mark of true leadership in the church. This means that the true leaders of the church are often the most unheralded and seemingly insignificant folks. They are busy serving others rather than vying for position. This also means that when that day comes, we may well be surprised at who will be there seated at Jesus right and left hand in glory.
Preaching the Text:
1). We are at the brink of a national election of some importance to the future of our country. It would be refreshing if the various campaigns made it a point to emphasize the service which their candidate offers the country, but that’s not the way the “Gentiles” operate. Rather we must watch depressing ads in which candidates vie for power by putting down their opponent in a power struggle for the top.
The corrupting nature of power politics was well-understood by the framers of the constitution. They may not have all been orthodox believers, but they had imbibed enough biblical and historical wisdom to understand the corruption of power. Their plan was to erect a system of balance of power that would thwart the power of hierarchy.
Jesus’s words here should be seen as the constitution of the church, the counter-cultural kingdom of God. Servanthood is the primary quality of leadership, and self-giving is the primary attitude for which we look.
2). This is a glaring example of teaching from Jesus himself that the church has too often ignored to its detriment. From medieval Popes who vied with kings over territorial control to pastors who accumulated so much power that they became corrupted by it, the church has repeated this mistake over and over. The example we are to follow is not the Lord enthroned at God’s right hand, but the Son of Man who gave up his life for the world.
In some parts of the church, there is also a strong emphasis on male leadership and authority. Whatever we may think of the biblical arguments for or against this position, we need to consider it in the light of Jesus’ teaching here. True authority is marked by self-giving service. As soon as someone claims authority or status for any other reason, it should be immediately suspect.
Even when Paul claimed that wives should submit to their husbands, the ultimate principle of such authority was Christ’s self-giving love. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her.” (Eph. 5: 25)
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.
Author: Stan Mast
Job is a book full of long speeches by people who are absolutely sure of themselves. Job’s erstwhile friends have turned into prosecutors for the state, pressing their case that Job is guilty of great crimes. Otherwise he wouldn’t be suffering the way he is. And Job gives long passionate defenses of his innocence and even dares to challenge God to appear in court to vindicate him. In Job 31:35 Job says one last time, “let the Almighty answer me….”
But before God can answer, the youngest of Job’s friends breaks in with an impassioned, impertinent speech in which he doubles down on his older comrades’ accusations. Elihu has listened patiently, deferring to the age of both Job and his friends. Now he opens his mouth to school all of them and he goes on for 6 excruciatingly self-assured, self-righteous chapters. In his conclusion, he inadvertently anticipates what is about to happen when he refers to the “wind” and God’s coming in “golden splendor” in Job 37:21,22. Then he closes his mouth.
That’s when God opens his mouth “out of the storm,” which some interpret as whirlwind, while others read simply “wind or storm.” Given the weather events of late summer and early fall in America, maybe “hurricane” gives the best sense. Above the roar of the storm comes the immeasurably louder and more frightening voice of God. At last Job gets what he was begging for, a clear vision of God and a conclusive answer to his complaints and questions.
Except that God doesn’t seem to answer Job’s questions at all. God’s response does not explain his ways with Job; it challenges Job’s knowledge. Specifically, the format of God’s response is to ply Job with rhetorical questions to each of which Job must plead ignorance or powerlessness. God says nothing about Job’s suffering, nor does he address Job’s problem with divine justice. Job gets neither a bill of indictment nor a verdict of innocence. But, more important, God does not condemn or humiliate him—which surely would have been the case if the friends had been right. So, by implication Job is vindicated, and later his vindication is directly affirmed. This divine discourse, then, succeeds in bringing Job to complete faith in God’s goodness without his receiving a direct answer to his questions. (For these summary comments I am indebted to the NIV Study Bible.)
All of which raises an existential question for modern day readers. What would bring you to faith? What would be enough to convince you to trust God completely, even in your suffering? The book of Job gives a surprisingly post-modern answer—not a set of arguments explaining the ways of God with us, but a set of questions confronting us with the reality of God’s inscrutability; not reason, but revelation; not theodicy, but theophany. As the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Or as Job himself says in Job 42:5, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” That was enough for Job.
That won’t be enough for many of our listeners. After all, we have moved a long way past the ancient world in knowledge and technology and science. We have learned how to tame nature in many ways. We are the masters of our own fate. At least that seems to be the reigning mentality in advanced nations. I suspect that many of our “sovereign selves” will reply to Job’s God with a proud retort, “That’s not good enough. I demand more from God, if there is one. I won’t be bullied into silence as Job was. I demand an answer to the suffering of the world. I will continue to press my case against God until he explains himself and his ways to me.”
In your sermon, you could try to explain God, as Job and his friends did, to no good end. Or you could simply show people the picture of God painted by God in the words of Job 37-41. It will be hard to paint as well as God did, but you can at least show people the substance and structure of God’s portrait.
The substance of God’s answer is found in verses 2 and 3, where God says, in effect, “Who are you? Who do you think you are? In your exhausting attempt to come to grips with me and your situation, you have ‘darkened my counsel (my plans and designs and purpose) with words without knowledge.’” With all of his words (and by extension, the words of his friends), Job has confused matters rather than clarifying them. Job is being put in his place because he has not given God his proper place.
Then the God who has been the subject of much debate summons Job to a battle. “Brace yourself like a man (literally, gird up your loins).” But rather than assault Job with brute force and thus destroy him, God attacks Job with the same weapon Job has been using against God—questions. Stop for a moment there. That is a gracious thing. The Bible often says that we cannot see God and live. The reality of God is so overwhelming that, were we to be confronted by God as God is in himself, we would be, as Isaiah put it, “undone.” So, in his grace, God comes at Job by the side door, so to speak. Or to paraphrase Exodus 33:23, God will come in by the back door, using something with which Job is very familiar. But now the tables are turned. “I will question you, and you shall answer me.”
The first questions in our reading for today have to do with the origins and dimensions of the universe, questions that ought to be very familiar to our modern listeners. God’s questions to Job remind us that however much progress we might make scientifically on such matters, the fact is that none of us were there when it all began. And we remain infinitesimally small parts of the whole. That is the point of God’s questions in verses 4-7. Where were you when it all began? Tell me if you know the answer to these major cosmic questions.
Then in verses 34-41, God talks about controlling the weather and doling out wisdom. From Job’s impotence before the forces of nature and his cluelessness about the origin of wisdom, God turns to animate nature and spends the rest of his speech surveying the wonders of the animal world, including the monsters that so terrified ancient man, Behemoth and Leviathan. Again and again, God asks Job if he knows certain facts of nature or if he can provide for animal life or if he can control the monsters. Here God is showing Job his ignorance as well as his powerlessness, as a way of highlighting that God is God and Job is not.
With his 70 some questions, God subtly (or not so subtly) paints a picture of himself as a God so immense, so wise, so eternal, so sovereign, so utterly other that, in the end, Job can only stop his questions and repent of his sin. No, his questions about his suffering and God’s justice have not been answered, but he did get what he wanted most of all (as we heard in Job 23). He got to meet God. And that was enough for him.
But it may not be enough for us, because we only get to read of this encounter. None of us has had such a face to face meeting with God in the same way as Job did. So, we remain skeptics and doubters and complainers and accusers of God. How does God’s self-revelation here answer our questions about human suffering, divine justice, the existence of evil, and the sovereignty of God? As C.J. Williams says, “Job is a book that invites yet defeats every attempt at a tidy, conclusive explanation of those questions.”
But that hasn’t stopped scholars from trying. Here are a few of the major explanations of Job’s conundrums. First, Job discovers that there is order in the world. God reminds Job that there is order in the physical world, even if Job can’t answer God’s profound questions about that world. In the same way, there is order in the moral world, even if we can’t understand it. What may seem like irrational chaos is, in fact, ruled by a wise, just, and good God. That is true, even if we cannot grasp the shape of that moral order.
Second, Job shows us that God is sovereign over all things—inanimate nature, animate nature, and the affairs of humanity. God is so utterly sovereign that, once we meet him, all of our questions will melt away before his majesty. In other words, the answer to all our questions is, simply, God. Job understood this much better than we do, because, as I Peter 5:6 says, “He humbled himself under the mighty hand of God.”
But those explanations of the book of Job leave us with a picture of God as ineffable mystery or as abhorrent bully. That’s why I like the third explanation that focuses on one word in Job 38:1. “Then the Lord answered Job….” The word “Lord” there is that ancient, classic, essential name of God, Yahweh. It is the covenant name of God, the name that identifies the mysterious Almighty as the God who has taken his people by the hand in order to lead them to blessing beyond imagination. And that makes all the difference.
We have not heard that name since chapters 1 and 2, except one mention in chapter 12. When Job entered into his prolonged suffering and the exhausting debates it spawned, Yahweh became simply “he” or “the Almighty” or “my judge,” or “God.” That is, of course, exactly what happens when we suffer. God becomes more distant, or feels so. Our relationship with God is blurred by our pain, our worship turns into complaint, and our prayers of gratitude are transformed into agonized questions.
So, thank God that God reappears as Yahweh. Job couldn’t recover his sense of God’s love on his own. God had to break through his pain with a reminder. I am Yahweh, the God who spoke to Abraham and Moses face to face. Now I speak to you as Yahweh, as the God whose love will not let you go.
That brings us to the ultimate answer to the questions and challenges of Job, namely, Yahweh in the flesh. God doesn’t explain his ways in a reasonable argument. Rather, his reason, his Word, the divine Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. In Job 23, we heard that Job’s deepest desire was for God to appear to him, but he couldn’t find God anywhere. Now God has found us in Jesus, Immanuel, God with us in his own suffering and dereliction. God’s final answer to all our questions is Jesus.
That may not satisfy the questions of our minds, but it does satisfy the needs of our lives in ways too real for words. After explaining the Gospel of Jesus Christ in words that challenge the brightest minds, Paul ends the doctrinal section of Romans with words that might have come directly from Job. “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths are beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor? Who has ever given to God that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)
The indignant modern response to the message of God’s absolute sovereignty in the book of Job reminded me of a poem by Judith Viorst, in which a child dreams of being in charge of the world and making it a very different place.
If I were in charge of the world
I’d cancel oatmeal,
Allergy shots, and also Sara Steinberg.
If I were in charge of the world
There’d be brighter night lights,
Healthier hamsters, and
Basketball baskets forty eight inches lower.
If I were in charge of the world
You wouldn’t have lonely
You wouldn’t have clean
You wouldn’t have bedtime
Or, ‘Don’t punch your sister.”
You wouldn’t even have sisters.
If I were in charge of the world
A chocolate sundae with whipped cream would be a vegetable
All 007 movies would be G,
And a person who sometimes forgot to brush,
And sometimes forgot to flush
Would still be allowed to be
In charge of the world.
Psalm 104: 1-9, 24, 35c
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
During the week in which I am writing this sermon starter a UN Commission released disturbing report on global warming and climate change. With an array of scientific studies to back it up, the report predicts that we have about 10 years in which to sharply reduce the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere or the planet will undergo such profound changes in sea level and temperature as to make life precarious for millions of people across the globe. Reading these findings provides a fitting, and jarring, context in which to read Psalm 104.
Psalms 103 and 104 are clearly linked together as the only Psalms having the same unique beginning and ending, “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” Psalm 103 is a hymn of praise to the God who, like a father, cares for and saves people from the powers of sin and death. Psalm 104 praises the God who made all creatures, feeds and cares for them, and delights in them. In Psalm 104 we see the lovingkindness of God extended from humanity (Psalm 103) to all of God’s creation.
One of the striking things about this Psalm is the way in which it differs with its paired Psalm 103. Psalm 103 is focused on God’s love and care for humanity while Psalm 104 mentions God’s human creatures just once, almost in passing. These widely differing perspectives offer us an opportunity to see ourselves as one with all of God’s creatures. Humanity is, of course, uniquely made in God’s image, but we forget, to our peril, our common creatureliness with the rest of creation.
It’s too bad that the lectionary shortens the Psalm’s 104’s achingly beautiful verses down to just 11 for the sake of brevity. I would urge you to try to include the whole Psalm in the worship service. This abridged version tends to cut out the most dramatically personal aspects of the Psalm, the intimacy of the creator with his creatures. God makes the world habitable for all his creatures, feeds them, slakes their thirst, and even plays with them (vs. 26).
The Psalm as a whole begins by praising God as the great and powerful creator of all things who is “wrapped in light as with a garment.” It moves on then to describe how this unimaginably great Creator built the earth from its most basic sub-structures outward, and is in absolute control of all the forces that affect his earthly creatures.
Befitting its source in the Middle East, where water is so crucial, the Psalm overflows with the image of water. Ancient Israel saw water as both a threat and a necessity. Too much water, as in the tumultuous sea with its monstrous creatures like Leviathan threatened chaos. It’s only when water is channeled and contained that it can provide safe sustenance for God’s creatures.
In the same way storm clouds and blowing wind can threaten God’s creatures, but the Psalm pictures God riding the winds that become mere messengers, and fire that serve God’s purpose. The creator not only gives life, form, and being to the created universe, but sovereignly controls it to do his bidding.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
One problem in preaching this Psalm is that most fifth graders know that clouds, rain, and wind result from “natural forces” that can, to a large extent, be predicted by scientific techniques. While the Psalm claims that the earth is built on foundations that will never be moved, we think of the floating tectonic plates that shift continents over time and that sometimes give way in an earthquake.
Of course, like the early chapters of Genesis, this Psalm was written in a pre-scientific age. But its purpose is not to explain natural phenomena, but to sing praise to the Creator who “in wisdom” made it all. It points us to an enchanted world that we have lost in the flatland of modernity.
At a time when so-called “career atheists” insist that the Bible is a relic that should be tossed into the dustbin of history, we need to sing this Psalm. Its lyrical praise of the Creator despite its pre-scientific language, is about the meaning of creation, not merely its processes. It addresses a deep need within us to take delight in the world around us.
The Psalm does not just praise a distant and uninvolved creator, but a creator who loves the creation and is intimately involved in it. Following closely after Psalm 103 that celebrates God’s saving help for humanity, this Psalm asserts God’s close involvement with the whole of creation and all its creatures.
The naturalist story features an ultimately meaningless cosmos arising out of mere chance and ending in a spectacular collapse on itself. The biblical story depicts a creation alive with the glory of the Creator and ends not with the death-throes of a meaningless creation, but its glorious renewal. The Bible begins and ends with the creation and its Creator at the center. That’s something to sing about!
The naturalist story also does not address the crisis of our time deeply enough– the destruction of our planet as as habitable by God’s creatures. All it can offer is that we should work to save the planet out of self-interest and the welfare of future generations. The Christian story declares that God made it all out of love, and appointed us as its responsible caretakers. We must answer to God for the ways we have destroyed the planet.
One would think, then, that Christians would be among the most vocal members of society in urging creation care. But strangely, many evangelical Christians, the people of the book, tend to be among the climate change doubters. Might the reason be that creation and salvation have been torn apart, so that salvation is only about humanity and not the creation itself.
This important perspective helps us see the world from the perspective of its Creator as well as its Savior. God cares for and takes delight in all his creatures. The lyric tone of this Psalm calls us to realize that our our heedless destruction of habitat and climate, which threatens whole species with extinction, is of the deepest concern to the God we praise.
Preaching the Text
1). Psalm 104 is a hymn to the Creator who can be recognized in the beauty and grandeur of the creation. One of the effects of modernity is that the world is no longer a divinely “enchanted” place, filled with signals that point us to God. Instead, we live in a flatland where every natural phenomenon has an immediate cause and effect. It’s all scientifically and empirically explainable, and the mystery is gone.
I believe we need to fight against that flattening effect, and Psalm 104 helps us to do it. But we also need to listen to the poets of our own time who dig beneath the flat surface reality to the enchantment that still shines through–poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, and Wendell Berry. A few lines from one or two of them could re-instill the sense of enchantment we need.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
2). Some of you probably have Power Point capability where you preach. Perhaps there is someone in the congregation who loves nature photography or who can find images on the web to complement the sermon. Too many might be a distraction from the sermon, but a few that illustrate both ecological devastation and divine enchantment might serve the congregation well.
3). One way of including more of the Psalm in your worship service is to sing it. There are a large number of hymns, old and new, based on Psalm 104. Check it out here:
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 between us. However, Hebrews 5 insists that the only way that can happen is if God does it.
During this American political campaign season, both those who proclaim and those who hear this lesson may be angry that both our leaders and some of those who voted for them revealed their sinfulness. But why should the sins of our leaders surprise any of us? All of us, leaders and voters, have fallen far short of God’s glory.
One way God repaired the relationship between God’s sinful Old Testament people and God was through Israel’s religious leaders. God chose and called priests to mediate between God and people by offering gifts and sacrifices to the Lord for sins. However, good high priests didn’t just maintain a good relationship with the Lord. They also cultivated good relationships with people. Priests had to be compassionate.
Yet Hebrews 5 reminds us that even the most empathetic high priests’ relationships with the Lord were as broken as anyone’s. Priests were fully as “weak” (2) as those for whom they interceded before God. In fact, before they could even offer sacrifices for other people, they had to perform a sacrifice for themselves (3).
Because Jesus completely both repaired our relationship with God and continues to intercede before God on our behalf, God’s adopted sons and daughters believe we no longer need high priests. However, Christians still have people whom we sometimes think of as acting as mediators between God and us.
Roman Catholics, in fact, have priests whom they view as intermediaries between God and God’s people. What’s more, all religious leaders have a responsibility to act as a kind of mediator between God and people by praying for those whom God and they love.
Of course, some of Israel’s high priests/mediators were very corrupt. In fact, opposition to the priesthood’s corruption helped lead to the founding of several of her dissident communities. Jesus was often very critical of the religious leaders of his day.
Things haven’t changed much among modern religious leaders. Almost 30 years ago a lovely Iowa country church affirmed God’s call to me to serve as a kind of mediator. Yet anyone who’s ever, for example, watched a Michigan football game with me knows that I too need God to constantly repair the relationship between God and me. God graciously chooses and equips pastors to be among those who speak for God’s people to God and for God to God’s people. However, if pastors still had to offer sacrifices for our sins, we wouldn’t have any time left over to do things like preparing sermons.
More than 130 people accused the former priest John Geoghan of assaulting them during a 30-year spree through six Boston parishes. And while Geoghan’s boss knew about those problems, he approved his move to another parish in greater Boston. It took three cardinals and many bishops 34 years to finally put children out of Geoghan’s lethal reach.
So clearly even those we think of as our mediators with God make a mess of our relationship with God and our neighbors. Thankfully, then, God graciously took the task of reconciling himself to us upon himself. When God chose God’s Son to become our great High Priest, God’s Son voluntarily surrendered heaven’s glory to take on that job.
It’s hard to understand just how God gave the Son of God the job as our high priest (5-6). Yet Hebrews’ Preacher clearly wants us to recognize the Son of God’s humility in accepting that role. The Preacher also wants us to see how our great High Priest isn’t just humble. He’s also able to sympathize with us in our weakness. After all, Jesus shared our flesh and blood.
To emphasize that, Hebrews’ Preacher describes Jesus’ suffering in powerful and graphic terms. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth,” he writes in verse 7, “[Jesus] offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.”
Many of those who proclaim Hebrews 5 and those who hear us have offered up loud cries in hospital rooms and funeral homes. We’ve offered up tears over the deaths of loved ones and strangers. We’ve prayed and cried about the serious illness and decline of people we love and like.
Hebrews’ Preacher reminds us Jesus has “been there.” He too, after all, offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the Lord (7). He certainly did that when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We imagine that Jesus also offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears throughout his lifetime.
However, Hebrews’ Preacher is probably mainly referring to the anguished cries Jesus “offered up” from the cross. He, after all, didn’t respond to its suffering by caving in to despair and sin. Jesus’ suffering somehow deepened his obedience to God instead of hardening his heart toward God. In fact, he cried out to God for help even as the Romans were torturing him to death.
So Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer. Of course, he doesn’t know what it’s like to suffer from cancer, dementia or mental illness, aging’s effects, divorce or children’s rebellion. But he suffered in a way his adopted Christian brothers and sisters will never have to: on the cross he suffered without God being present.
Other people cause some of our suffering. Jesus can relate to that kind of suffering. He, after all, suffered more unjustly at others’ hands than perhaps anyone in history. However, God’s children also inflict some of our suffering on ourselves. While none of Jesus’ suffering was self-inflicted or self-generated, God’s people sense he understands even such suffering.
Of course, it’s hard for us to know how Jesus learned obedience from all of that suffering (8). Jesus was, after all, always perfectly obedient. Yet some scholars suggest that Hebrews means that Jesus came to appreciate the challenge of obedience in a new way when he was confronted with his own weakness.
By remaining perfectly obedient all the way to death on a cross, Jesus somehow earned his adopted brothers and sisters’ salvation. As a result, God’s people don’t need anyone to make sacrifices or any other kind of religious gesture to God for us any more. We don’t have to try to save ourselves. Jesus has restored a right relationship between God and “those who obey him.”
Of course, Hebrews’ Preacher assertion that Jesus saves “all who obey him” seems to contradict our assumptions about salvation through grace alone. Yet God’s children remember that those who believe in Jesus Christ also obey him. We aren’t saved by the quality of our faith or obedience. We’re saved by God’s grace alone that we can only receive with our faith. Yet that faith always includes our obedience.
We might think of it this way. My siblings and I who were present when my dying mom went to bed at night went in to her room to say goodnight to her. They were both some of the most difficult and best moments of what were sometimes very hard days.
The last time I said goodnight to my mom I spent time thanking her for being such a wonderful mom. I told her some of the specific ways she’d so richly blessed our family and me.
Mom responded, as she had so many times when we parted, by saying, “Keep up the good work.” I think it was a way for her to say, “Do you want to thank me? Then keep up the good work of being a husband, father, grandfather and pastor.”
In a sense that’s something like what God says to each of God’s adopted children. “Do you want to thank me for restoring you to a right relationship with me? Then keep up the good work. Keep your promises, as well as love your neighbors and enemies. Thank me by staying faithful to your family members and friends, as well as caring for creation.”
In Michael Chabon’s remarkable novel, Moonglow, Mike’s dying grandfather recounts to him what one reviewer calls his “vivid and rambunctious life.” He tells his grandson to write it all down after he dies.
In one particularly moving vignette, Mike remembers his grandfather expressing his feelings about the Holocaust: “The annual celebrations of God’s mercy, justice and power, the festivals and fasts undertaken in praise of His Name, the miracles he was supposed to have thrown our way over the centuries — in my grandfather’s mind, it was all nullified by the thing he had not yet learned to call the Holocaust.
“’In Egypt, in Shushan,’ Mike’s grandfather tells him, ‘in the time of Isaiah Maccabee, God had intervened to deliver us with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; big deal. When we were sent to the ovens, God had sat with his mighty outstretched thumb up his mighty ass and let us burn’.”
While Mike’s grandfather’s language is vulgar (I wouldn’t recommend that Hebrews 5’s preachers and teachers quote especially its last line verbatim), it does reflect a way of thinking about God and suffering. A sensitively edited form of his response to the Holocaust may provide an avenue into exploring Hebrews 5.