October 22, 2018
The Proper 25B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 10:46-52 from the Lectionary Gospel; Job 42:1-6, 10-17 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22) from the Lectionary Psalms; and Hebrews 7:23-28 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 80 (Lord’s Day 30)
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
Where are we? That’s always a good question to ask concerning a Gospel passage, and it’s particularly appropriate for this episode. The healing of Bar Timaeus comes as the climax to the entire first half of Mark, and at the completion of Jesus final trek to Jerusalem. The very next event is Jesus “Triumphal Entry” into the city.
For most of that trip Jesus has been emphasizing what it means to be his disciple. Peter didn’t get it with his refusal to accept that Jesus must die on the cross. The rich young man didn’t get it with his turning sadly away because the cost of discipleship was too high. The Zebedee boys, James and John didn’t get it with their desire to be at his right and left when Jesus comes into his Kingdom.
But here in Jericho, just as Jesus enters the final step of his journey to Jerusalem, here’s someone who gets it. The significance of this man’s commitment comes through with the fact that he has a name. Jesus has performed a number of miracles up to this point in the gospel–a deaf-mute, a blind man, a lame man, as well as the demon-possessed, but none of them has a name. Not even the rich young man has a name, but a blind beggar does. Mark makes sure to mention it even though he has to explain it to his Gentile audience: son of Timaeus.
Perhaps it’s because this man has become known in the early church, maybe he’s even become a leader. But for Mark, the significance of Bar Timaeus is surely that he demonstrates the characteristics of a real disciple. The Twelve are denying Jesus’ mission and vying for power. The rich young man makes a fatal choice to keep his money rather than follow Jesus call to give it all away and follow him. Bar Timaeus joyfully follows the Lord into Jerusalem. Now here is a real disciple.
Begging was ubiquitous in Jesus’ day, as it is increasingly in our own. You might say it was the social service model for Israel and the whole ancient world. People who could not make a living because of some disability had to lower themselves by begging for money from passersby. It actually worked quite well, in that it brought together their need for a living and the need for law-abiding Jews to give alms.
Suddenly enveloped by a crowd of people excited about this visitor to the city, Bar Timaeus senses that this is his moment, his opportunity. He begins yelling at the top of his lungs to get Jesus’ attention. Every word of his cry is important: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Jesus, Jeshua. Here we are in Jericho, the first city that fell (literally) under the control of the Israelites under the earlier Jeshua, coming out of the wilderness. Jesus is recalling the journey of Israel to the promised land.
Son of David. This is another way of saying “Messiah.” The Messiah is the promised Son of David who will sit on the throne of David forever (II Samuel 7). This is the only time in which Jesus is addressed by this title in Mark’s gospel, and it comes from the lips of this blind beggar. One other interesting note is to recall that when David conquered Jerusalem the blind and lame had get out because they are the ones whom “David hates.” (II Samuel 5: 6-10)
Have mercy on me. The word in Greek is “eleison,” the word that has become so deeply embedded in the liturgy of the church, kyrie eleison.
These words, in a slightly different form, have special significance in the Orthodox tradition as the “Jesus Prayer.” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is the essential way in which we approach the Savior in our neediness, blindness, and sin. We acknowledge who he is and who we are. He is the Lord, the Savior, and we are beggars. He is the all-powerful Messiah, and we need mercy.
It’s especially interesting to contrast Bar Timaeus’ approach to Jesus with that of the Zebedee boys just a few verses earlier. While they ask Jesus for a special place in his royal cabinet, Bar-Timaeus simply begs for mercy.
Everyone tells Bar Timaeus to shut up. It’s unseemly to hear the cries of a beggar when a dignitary has come to town. Like many cities and towns in our own day, the homeless are rounded up and kept away when the community leaders want to leave a good impression on important guests.
There is tremendous social pressure to stifle the cries of human pain and neediness. When people sink deeply into grief, they often hear the message, “Get over it!” When the poor and homeless make their presence known society wants to make them invisible. When victims cry out for justice, they are often told to just take it and move on. When people commit crimes and seek mercy to rebuild their lives, society wants to lock them up and throw away the key.
“Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.'” Jesus’ ears are especially tuned to hear the kyrie eleison whenever and wherever it may be voiced. We are all beggars. We have no claim on Jesus other than that we are in deep and desperate need for his mercy. It is the key that unlocks the heart of the Lord, and it is the key to entering the house of the Father.
It is amazing to me how often, deep down, I resist this simple truth. I want to get Jesus’s attention when he notices how good, how important, how devoted I am. Like James and John, we want a place of admiration and influence. Why is it so hard to utter these simple words? Yet, my need for mercy is the only claim that I have on Jesus.
Often, in Jesus’s encounters with the sick and needy, there’s a kind of lethargy to their response. They are so used to a life of need, that it’s hard for them to really think that something can be done for them. Bar Timaeus is different. Mark paints a picture of eagerness and energy. He “throws off his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.” He knew this was his only real hope.
It may seem strange that Jesus asks him a question that would seem obvious. “What is it you want?” One way to understand it is that the man is a beggar, so he might simply be after some money. In that case, Jesus’s question may be more like, “What do you really want?”
Frederick Dale Bruner offers another explanation. He suggests that here, and in other similar situations, Jesus wants more than to be on call for emergency medical requests. He wants a conversation, a relationship. In our human cry for mercy, Jesus asks us to articulate the real need, the real desire. And the answer to that question is not always immediately apparent.
When Jesus asks, “what do you want from me?” our answer may get at the reality of our faith and discipleship. Are we asking Jesus for a little of this and a little of that to make our lives more comfortable, less burdensome? Or are we asking for something only Jesus can give, the healing of our deepest wounds, our most insidious sins? In asking this question, Jesus points us to the real meaning of discipleship. What are you really after?
“My Teacher (rabouni), I want to see again.” Bar Timaeus responds to Jesus desire to enter into a relationship with an address we only find twice in the gospels, here and when a weeping Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus at the tomb. It’s a very personal and even intimate for of address. It’s as though for Bar Timaeus this was the encounter he had been waiting for all his life, you are the one.
The word “again” tells us something about Bar Timaeus as well. At some point he could see, but now he is blind. It could have been as simple as cataracts or as severe as some eye disease. The point is that he once could see but is now blind. He is asking Jesus to reverse that. “Once I was blind, but now I can see,” as the old hymn says.
There is a sense in which he already sees. His insistent cry for Jesus’ help, and his understanding of Jesus as the “Son of David” show that while his eyes may be blind, he had a more important kind of spiritual insight. He asks Jesus to give him back his sight, because he had already seen that Jesus is the only one who can.
This is true for all of us. We cannot receive what we truly want and need from Jesus without insight into who he really is. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he talks about the need for faith in order to be healed. It’s not that we have to pump up our faith by eradicating all doubt that he can do what we ask. It’s that we need to understand who Jesus really is, and then cast ourselves on his mercy. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Jesus says, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Bar Timaeus does the opposite. As soon as his sight was restored, he “followed him on the way.” In other words, he became a disciple. He joined that group of disciples on their way to Jerusalem. But, as we saw at the beginning, Mark wants us to see that the blind beggar Bar Timaeus was in some important ways a more genuine disciple than those who Jesus had chosen. He was the one who uttered the words that define our relationship with Christ.
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.
Preaching the Text:
1). Preachers are always wondering how to bring a congregation into a text. What is the point of contact that will touch their hearts and engage their minds? At least two possibilities come to mind.
The first might be to home in on the Bar-Timaeus’ cry for help, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. You might point out that these words are a form of what in Eastern Orthodoxy is called “the Jesus Prayer.” This prayer is advocated as a kind of prayer that would fulfill what Paul meant by “praying constantly (I Thess. 5: 16). But it’s also one of the most standard phrases in the Christian liturgy, “kyrie eleison,” Lord have mercy. Strip everything else away, and this is the fundamental need of weak, sinful mortals before the face of God, Lord have mercy. In our guilt, in our neediness, in our physical and spiritual weakness, we beg for God’s mercy.
The Greek word eleison is related to the Greek word for oil. In the Bible, oil is not just a condiment, but the sign of peace (Psalm 131) , the “oil of gladness,” (Psalm 45:7), the healing balm that James enjoins on elders in their prayers for healing (James 5). “Lord, have mercy is our deep human desire for peace with God, with each other, and within our own body and soul.
Another, more directly biblical approach is to place this story in the context of Mark’s gospel as a whole. It is the the crucial hinge between Jesus work of salvation in the cross and resurrection and the rest of his earthly ministry. Coming where it does, the story of Bar Timaeus displays the nature of true discipleship, especially in contrast with the rich young man who turns away because of his wealth, and the twelve, who are locked in a war of one-up-man-ship. And it is all comes down to the cry for mercy of a poor blind beggar everyone is telling to shut up.
2). In the crowd’s attempt to silence Bar Timaeus, we can see a pattern that we often see in the world around us. Whatever you may think of the #MeToo movement, it is a response to the many ways in which the abuse of women has been silenced over the years. The same is true of many others in society whose real needs and fervent demands for justice are silenced by the those who hear it as whining or merely getting attention.
3). “Ordinary Grace,” a novel by William Kent Kreuger could serve as a wonderful preparation for preaching on this text. In it he tells the story of a minister’s family in small town Minnesota ripped apart by fear, injustice, and grief. The minister at the heart of the story, Pastor Drum, is a living portrait of what mercy looks like in the midst of human misery and suffering, and how the crowds around try to shut down mercy in favor of rejection or revenge. But through all his suffering and loss, through all his caring for his needy and hypocritical congregation, he keeps up a continuing conversation with God, a constant Kyrie Eleison.
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Author: Stan Mast
After surviving a blizzard of words (some from Job, many from his friends, and a few from God), we come to the end of the book of Job with this short chapter which reports on Job’s last words and last days. It is a surprising and, for many readers, controversial ending to a surprising and controversial book.
God has revealed himself to Job in a whirlwind of questions about creation, challenging Job to answer the questions if he can. In our chapter, a stunned and chastened Job replies with the last words we will ever hear from him. He already knew about God’s utter sovereignty; “I know that you can do all things; no plans of yours can be thwarted.” But sovereignty wasn’t Job’s issue with God; it was God’s justice. How could God allow/cause an innocent man to suffer as though he were as guilty as sin? After loudly proclaiming his innocence and pleading for God’s judicial intervention, Job admits his ignorance and confesses his arrogance.
Job thought he knew all about God; so did his friends. But God challenged that knowledge; “who is this that obscures my council without knowledge?” After seeing God, Job readily admits his ignorance. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” It’s not as though Job could have understood more if he had just gone to a better school and had studied harder, if he had purchased a more advanced computer or used more complex software, if he had consulted more experts in theology. No, the things of God are beyond any human knowledge, “too wonderful to know.” In place of his irate challenges, Job is now filled with humility.
That humility leads him to confess his sin—not just his ignorance, but his arrogance. Job had demanded his day in court so he could plead his case, and God had finally given it to him. But God reversed the roles. “Listen now, and I will speak. I will question you and you shall answer me.” The overwhelming vision of this questioning God has put Job in his proper place before God. Hearing about God all his life had not prepared Job for the reality of God. When he finally saw God in all his glory, Job knew that he had fallen short of the glory of God. “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Above, I said that this is a confession of sin, but that is a controversial reading of verse 6. Some point out that the “worm theology” of despising himself is inconsistent with God’s high opinion of Job in chapters 1 and 2. God isn’t interested in Job despising himself, because God himself has exalted Job. Other scholars say that the word “repent” isn’t the usual word for that act of penitence in the Hebrew; it doesn’t necessarily mean an admission of guilt. Rather, it is an act of turning around, changing the course of one’s life. Still others contend that Job is simply recanting all the words he had spoken. I take it all back. I didn’t know what I was talking about, and I won’t say it anymore.
How one understands these last words of Job will depend on how one interprets Job’s challenges to God’s justice. Were they simply agonized lament, the most painful expression of faith? Were they inappropriate but understandable expressions of doubt, of little faith that is still faith? Or were they borderline blasphemy, a rebellious denigration of God’s holiness? I hear all three of those things in Job’s ranting, so I see why Job would feel the need to repent once he had seen God in all God’s glory. Even though lament is an important aspect of real faith, and even though God does not reject those who doubt in the midst of misery, there was enough arrogance in Job’s calling God to the dock to warrant genuine repentance.
It is important to make these distinctions, because we need to know how we must respond to God in the end. When it’s all said and done, what should be our response to the mysteries of life and the deeper mystery of God? Job suggests that humility and penitence are the proper posture of a child of God.
Indeed, the rest of Job 42 seems to suggest that Job’s response was essential to the restoration of life after all the suffering, both for Job’s friends and for Job himself. And that is deeply troubling to many readers. It’s almost like Satan was right; Job’s relationship with God does depend on God blessing Job fantastically. But, of course, Job hung with God through all his suffering, even if we grant that Job’s faith was not always as strong as it had been. Other readers allege that the end of Job proves that Job’s friends were right; if he would just repent, God would restore his life to its former splendor. But God directly tells Job’s friends that they were all wrong in what they told Job (verse 7). Further, God was angry about their wrong interpretation of God’s ways with humanity. It will take the intercession of Job to restore those know-it-alls to a right relationship with God.
Satan was not vindicated, nor were Job’s friends. God was and so was Job. And so everything is restored to its former state. Job is still a deeply godly man and God blesses Job accordingly. Indeed, God doubles Job’s blessings, almost as though God is rewarding Job for his persistent, though imperfect faith. It’s not that God is buying Job’s allegiance, as Satan alleged. It’s that God “rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6).” Or as Hebrews 6:10 says, “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him….”
Thus, it should not be surprising that Job’s life ends well. Actually, it is surprising to many readers of Job. As one said, “How is that by ‘despising myself’ and ‘repenting in dust and ashes’ I get ‘twice as much as I had before’?” That seems a bit cynical to me, as though Job is the recipient of a tit for tat legal contract. If you do this, I will do that.
What we actually have here at the end of Job is one more outworking of the covenant between God and his people, in which God sovereignly came to sinners, called them to walk with him, promised them amazing blessings, and then spelled out the exact terms of their walk with him. In his covenantal love, God promises to bless those who will trust and obey him. It’s not that their relationship with him depends on their complete trust and absolute obedience; it depends on his grace to them. But in his grace, he predicts what will happen if they don’t trust and obey, and he promises to bless them if they humble themselves and repent of their sins and return to him. To put it in the words of an old hymn, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”
But even if we can accept Job’s happy ending as another sign that God is kind and merciful to his children in the end, we are left with lingering questions that are deeply unsettling. What about this business of Satan having access to heaven and accusing us to God’s face? How could God bite on Satan’s bet and put Job through all this trouble? And, even though Job got 10 new children and they were really special, what about his sorrow over the 10 who died as a result of the contest between God and Satan? What about the theology espoused by Job’s friends that linked suffering and sin? Isn’t there something to that? Do Job’s tirades about the absence and apparent apathy of God give us permission to lodge the same complaints in our suffering?
I tried to deal with some of these questions in my Sermon Starter for Job 1 and 2 several weeks ago, but the interesting thing about the end of this troubling book is that Job doesn’t seem to be troubled by these questions anymore. Not because God has blessed him into submission (verses 10-17), but because God’s self-revelation has made all the questions moot (verses 1-6). The enormity of God’s power, the complexity of God’s will, the goodness of God’s dealing with his creation, and the reminder that God has made himself known as Yahweh—all of that communicated in a vision was enough to silence Job’s mouth and change his heart.
Of course, that still leaves us with those profound questions. After all, we have not had such a face to face encounter with the living God. We have had no theophany; all we have is our theology. But, wait. If the Gospel is true, we have had an encounter with the living God. It was a theophany not of God’s glory to Job, but of God’s suffering like Job. “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, had made him known (John 1:18).” “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8 and 9) God has “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (II Corinthians 4:6)
True, we have not “seen” God as Job did. We have only read about the Word made flesh; as Job said, “my ears had heard of you.”. So we aren’t as overwhelmed as Job was. But the theophany of God in Jesus Christ shows us that the God who is such a mystery to us loves us beyond our understanding. That is finally the point of the book of Job, according to James 5:10-11. “Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”
That is the message that cuts through all our questions. “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” It may not seem that way to us in the middle of the mess. That’s why we need a prophet like Job to voice our troubles and then to demonstrate that our mysterious God is loving, compassionate and merciful. That’s what the last words of Job (verses 10-17) are designed to show. Job’s last days are a picture of the glory we will receive after we have suffered a little while (I Peter 1:6, 7).
We may shrink back from such an overtly eschatological message. Indeed, some scholars express outrage that such a message may silence the lamentations and complaints of those who suffer. But that’s precisely what Job doesn’t do. It gives full voice to our pain and confusion without giving easy answers. Then, thank God, it assures us that this moment of pain is not all there is. What comes after for those who will humble themselves and repent and believe is immeasurably better than what we’ve been through.
We must be careful not to minimize suffering, but we must be more careful not to minimize the glorious hope of the Gospel. Job is finally a call to patience in the face of suffering, because of the glory that will come later. II Corinthians 4:16-18 is a fine summary of that glorious hope. “Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (cf. Romans 8:17-18, 28-32, Romans 5:3-5 with James 1:2-4).
Two objects will help you preach the Gospel from Job—a Rubrics Cube and a Cross. Is Job like a Rubrics Cube, a puzzle that we must solve? Or does Job finally point us to the Cross where the Unseen God became visible as the One who suffered for us and our salvation? Questions are important and we should ask them passionately. But the ultimate answer is not a bunch of words that explain, but the Incarnate Word exhibiting God’s compassion and mercy by hanging on the cross.
Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22)
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging Into the Text:
1). The first thing to notice about this Psalm is that it is an acrostic. The poet/Psalmist not only takes on the usual formal patterns of Hebrew poetry such as parallelism, but adds the even more demanding form of the acrostic. It is analogous to the modern poet adopting the form of the sonnet on top of the other formal demands of poetry.
Sometimes this extra formal demand if an acrostic may make a Psalm seem more haphazard and repetitious, as in Psalm 119 (not to take away anything from its poetic power). Psalm 34 is remarkable for its coherence and flow even within its strict poetic boundaries. No one unfamiliar with the Hebrew would suspect it’s an acrostic.
2). Again, it’s important to take note of what the Lectionary includes and excludes in its selection. As commentators have noted, there are two main themes in the Psalm. One is an exhortation to lean on God in faith and prayer through times of trouble. This is based on the persona experience of the righteous.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
The second theme of the Psalm appears at verse 11, an exhortation to live in the “fear of the Lord,” which involves living by the ethical demands of God’s law
Keep your tongue from evil,
and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
seek peace, and pursue it.
So, it becomes clear that the lectionary selection basically eliminates the theme of the ethical life lived in the fear of the Lord in favor of the theme of prayer trust in God’s care and deliverance.
The problem is that the juxtaposition of these two themes is part of the genius of this Psalm. It’s like the way in which faith and works are tied together in the epistle of James– you can’t really have one without the other. In the framework of this Psalm, you can have faith in the Lord’s deliverance without the ethical commitments that the Lord calls forth in us. Faith without works is dead.
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their cry.
The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
So, the preacher has a decision to make. Do I follow the lectionary selection at the expense of ignoring the ethical balance of the Psalm, which makes for a less complicated sermon text? Or, do I take on the larger, but more theologically rich, challenge of weaving the two together as the Psalmist does so exquisitely?
One way of including the excised verses is to take up the ethical section of the Psalm as a sort of short interlude. Of course, trusting in God’s faithfulness and deliverance also means that we are committed to being the kind of person God calls us to be. Trusting in God’s deliverance while living contrary to God’s law amounts to what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap faith.”
3). This is a liturgical Psalm of praise for God’s deliverance in a time of trouble, but it’s genius is that, alongside the praise and thanksgiving, it contains a good deal of solid instruction. It is important to keep in mind that the best hymns, songs, or liturgies contain both. Compare, for example some contemporary praise songs alongside the best of traditional hymnody. Too often the praise songs have little or no theological and ethical content to build faith the congregation. “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above” is a good example of a classic hymn of praise that also provides deep theological content.
4). This Psalm emphasizes that the proper stance of those who seek the Lord is their poverty and lowliness. “This poor man cried….” (vs. 4) “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (vs. 18) Western culture tends to affirm and reward an attitude of strength and self-sufficiency, but the Psalm calls us to an attitude of dependence and trust. When we are in touch with our inherent human weakness and vulnerability we will foster a spirit of prayerfulness and thankfulness.
5). One of the obvious problems of the Psalm is that it seems to promise a kind of safety and well-being that is in conflict with the reality of life.
[The Lord} saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.
Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing.
The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all;
he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.
This is a part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. Like Proverbs, it is important to remember that these are not promises for every individual in every circumstance. A well-known proverb like “train children in the way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6) is not an iron-clad promise for each and every person. It is meant to offer a general truth.
The promises of deliverance and well-being in Psalm 34 do not mean that God’s people are always delivered from trouble and will live a long and healthy life. The Psalmist admits, “The righteous person may have many troubles.” Life is difficult and full of suffering for everyone. The point is that there is no one but the Lord our God who can truly deliver us. We cannot do it ourselves, nor can any other human being. Trusting in God, we anchor our lives and destiny in the care of the eternal and Almighty Creator, and we put our trust in the Son who has conquered death and sin.
6). “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” This daring and earthy image, coming in the middle of the Psalm, also serve as its nerve center. The only way to really experience the blessings and high calling of this Psalm is to put them into practice. Faith is not merely a trusting attitude of mind, a feeling. We experience faith by living it.
Those who actually do commit their lives to God in trusting prayer are typically those who also testify to God’s gracious love and care. Those who do not make that commitment are typically those who find all the loopholes in God’s promises. Those who actually seek to pattern their lives on reverence for God’s will are typically those who find it to be the pathway to well being and joy. Those who refuse to follow the ways of God typically find themselves overcome by life’s struggles and pain.
Taste and see” calls us to live what we believe as the only way to truly experience the goodness and grace of the Lord. Or, to put it even more radically, It is only by living our faith in prayer and obedience that we discover it’s reality and know its true comfort. To recall another old hymn, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be in happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
Preaching the Text:
1). If you are going to address the apparent conflict between faith in God’s guidance, protection, and help and the persistence of pain and suffering in life, you might point to two Christian leaders who trusted in God through suffering and pain.
Pastor Andrew Brunson was recently released after two years in prison in Turkey. On his release he spoke of the struggle to maintain his faith even in solitary confinement by meditating on scripture and prayer. His release is a good example of the gift of answered prayer.
But sometimes deliverance does not come. The book “The Monks of Tibhirine: (and film “Of Gods and Men”) tells the true story of a Roman Catholic monks in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria during the rise of radical Islamist forces there. Under threat of death, the monks decided to remain in Algeria because of their commitment to its people. All of them were eventually slaughtered by Islamic militants. It looks like a testimony to God’s absence rather than to answered prayer.
However, Brother Christian, Prior of the monastery wrote a letter to his family and friends to be sent on the occasion of his death. It is a testimony to the kind of faith in Christ that doesn’t demand deliverance, but perseveres as a testimony to Christ’s love for the world. You can find that letter here.
2). One of the ways to understand the Psalm’s call to “taste and see that the Lord is good is to discover it in our actual experience. In “Mere Christianity” C. S. Lewis says that one of the ways to begin to follow Jesus in the Christian life is to begin to live as though you were a Christian. The chapter called “Let’s Pretend” suggests that whenever we say the first words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father,” we are, in fact, pretending to be God’s sons and daughters. “To put it bluntly, we are dressing up as Christ. If you like, you are pretending…. You are not the Son of God whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greed, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death.” Why? “What’s the good of pretending to be what you are not?
Lewis continues, “When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And, in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality into reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.” In this way, we “taste and see that the Lord is good,” that is, our
The same could be said for another vital Christian practice, receiving Holy Communion. Jesus says, “This is my body, given for you.” But our minds tell us that this is just some bread and wine. How can it be the body and blood of Christ? We receive the obviously earthly elements of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. In a way, the faith by which we come to the Lord’s table is a kind of pretending. In that “pretending,” in this “acting as if” we are fed with Christ’s own life-giving self. We “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Author: Doug Bratt
This may not seem like a particularly appropriate Sunday on which to preach about priests. After all, Protestant Christians are preparing to celebrate the birth of the Reformation that the corruption of the Roman Catholic priesthood in part fueled.
What’s more, the Reformation emphasized the priesthood of all believers. Since Protestant Christians recognize that all believers can access God directly through prayer, most assume they no longer need priests to intercede for them.
Yet that certainly wasn’t the case for this week’s epistolary lesson’s first hearers. The Jewish faith that some of those Jewish Christians were reevaluating saw priests as necessary intercessors between a holy God and God’s sinful people.
However, Hebrews 7 notes that there were numerous problems with both priests and the priesthood. In verse 23 its Preacher says, “There have been many of those priests.” One historian counted 83 high priests from the time of Aaron to the end of worship in the temple. That’s because “death,” says the Preacher, “prevented them from continuing in office” (23).
On top of being mortal, Judaism’s priests were also spiritually fragile. So they had to repeatedly perform sacrifices, day after day, week after week, year after year, as long as they lived (26). Because it wasn’t just that those sacrifices didn’t have the power to actually forgive sins. It’s also that both the priests and the people they served just kept on sinning.
Those who proclaim Hebrews 7 know that even the best human beings fail every day. Faith weakens. Faithfulness deteriorates. Today’s sins, notes one colleague, overwhelm yesterday’s offerings. So Israel’s aging priests had to trudge back to the sanctuary in an endless cycle of sin and sacrifice, not just on behalf of those they served, but also for themselves. In fact, apparently the first offering they placed each day on the altar was for their own sins.
On top of that, priests, pastors and other leaders just keep dying. Tim was my classmate at Calvin Seminary. We served our first churches about 15 miles from each other in Iowa. Yet just a few years ago Tim died of cancer at the relatively young age of 54. To paraphrase Hebrews’ Preacher, “Death prevented him from continuing in office” (23). Tim’s death caused the church he’d so faithfully served to need to find a new pastor.
Yet even if those who proclaim Hebrews 7 don’t die while serving as our church’s pastor, eventually our churches too will have to find a new pastor. Because pastors don’t just die. We also retire or move to other areas of service and ministry.
Only one Pastor never moves to another church, retires or dies. In fact, only one Pastor-Priest has no character flaws or moral failures. Jesus will never have to be suspended, deposed or excommunicated. Nothing can keep Jesus, by his Spirit, from always being there for God’s adopted sons and daughters, full of sympathy, grace and mercy.
So God’s people no longer have to go out and find a goat or other offering for someone to sacrifice on our behalf. You and I no longer have to sacrifice something of ourselves to make God happy with us. It’s not just that those things can’t make God’s adopted children perfect. It’s also that God has given us, in Jesus Christ, a new kind of access to God. In fact, Jesus is so “holy, blameless [and] pure” (26) that he doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for himself and then for the rest of us.
Yet Jesus trudged through what Tom Long, to whose commentary on Hebrews in the Interpretation Series I owe a great deal for this and other Sermon Starters, calls “the muck and mire of human life.” He experienced nearly every test, underwent almost every trial and endured virtually every temptation people have ever experienced. Yet Jesus emerged from it not defeated but perfect, not disobedient but obedient. He remained faithful in a way that no human has ever been or ever will be again.
As a result, says the Preacher in verse 25, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him.” Jesus saves us both in every way necessary and for all time. Jesus is able to save all those who proclaim and hear Hebrews 7 completely. He doesn’t even partially save God’s children and leave the rest up to them. No, Jesus totally finishes the job.
So those who preach and teach Hebrews 7 as well as those who hear us can stop worrying about how to save each other and ourselves, our country and world. We can even stop worrying about whether or not we’re saved. Jesus has saved us completely.
By sinning against God and each other, God’s beloved sons and daughters had created a gap between God and us that’s vaster than the Pacific Ocean. Yet God has graciously bridged the vast gap we’ve created by coming to us in Jesus Christ.
All God’s people need to do to cross that gap is to come with faith to God. But, of course, we don’t naturally either want or know how to do that. So God gives us not just Jesus, but also the Holy Spirit who equips us with both the faith and the desire to come to God through faith in Jesus Christ.
The Scriptures make explicit claims about the need for that faith in Jesus Christ. That leaves us to be concerned about the lasting fate of specific people who don’t come to God through such faith. Yet God’s children do know that God is far more patient and persistent than the most stubborn unbeliever. So as long as people breathe, we have hope they’ll faithfully receive Christ’s completed work of salvation, both now and always.
Hebrews’ Preacher uses two more rich phrases to describe Jesus’ finished work. Verse 27 says Jesus “sacrificed for” our “sins once for all.” Old Testament priests had to offer countless sacrifices because those sacrifices were neither sufficient nor lasting. By contrast, Jesus offered one sacrifice, himself, one time for all who come to God in faith.
In the midst of our bloody history, God has done once and for all what God’s adopted sons and daughters have refused to do: stop the bloodshed. Jesus finished it. So even as we continue to spill each other’s blood as well as harm the creation Jesus came to save, God has in Christ done what needed to be done.
Why then aren’t God’s beloved people done spilling blood yet? Why is our media full of reports of violence and bloodshed, both in our country and overseas? Why are some of us dreading spending time at the holidays with people whose political views differ from our own?
It’s not just that some people haven’t yet come to God through faith in Jesus Christ. It’s also that those who have faithfully come to God have not always lovingly and peacefully lived for God. Christians have, in fact, sometimes treated each other and others even worse than non-Christians do.
That’s why God’s adopted sons and daughters thank God that Jesus, according to verse 25, “always lives to intercede for” us. Jesus’ sacrifice saves you and me completely and once and for all. Yet he’s still, in a sense, working for us.
Christians tend to emphasize Jesus finished work of saving us from our sins. So it’s easy to forget that Jesus is still on the job for us, helping us when we’re tempted, equipping us for obedience and sympathizing with us when we suffer.
Other pastors and priests are no longer available because they’ve died or moved away. Jesus is always available to God’s people because he’s forever on the job. And, in fact, Hebrews’ Preacher insists, Jesus lives to pray for us. It’s almost as if that’s now his most important job. We might even imagine Jesus enjoying few things more than praying for his adopted brothers and sisters. It’s as if he’s dedicated the whole time until he returns to helping us by interceding for us.
So God’s people can know that even when we can’t pray for ourselves, Jesus cares enough about us to pray for us. Even when we don’t know exactly what to pray, Jesus somehow prays for us. Even when God’s people are sleeping or too busy to pray, he cares enough about you to pray for us. Even after we’ve sinned for the 100th time in a day, Jesus cares enough about us to pray for us. Even when God’s children are wrestling with fear and doubts, Jesus prays for us.
One of the best things brothers and sisters in Christ can do for each other is pray for each other. Yet most of us sometimes forget to pray for even the people for whom we promise to pray. On top of that, we can’t pray all the time because we have to spend time working and sleeping. That becomes especially obvious when, for example, you have to help people in the middle of the night.
I don’t know and can’t explain just how one member of the Trinity can intercede for us before another member of the Trinity. But God’s adopted children can take great comfort in it. However, Jesus’ constant intercession for us also challenges us. After all, we no longer need priests to pray for us. But the prayers of God’s people are among the greatest gifts we can offer each other.
Mary Craig’s book, Blessings: An Autobiographical Fragment, deals in part with her experiences after her second son was born with a disability. She describes some of the letters she received.
“No one in their right mind could say that they were happy for us, but almost everyone I had ever known … felt compelled to write, to express deep feelings, or even to apologize for the fact that they did not know how to,” Craig writes.
“One letter that moved me to tears said simply: ‘We just don’t know what to say, except that you have our love and prayers . . ..’ The letters, representing as they did, so much human feeling, so much anguished groping for words, said more than the spoken word ever could.”