Sunday, April 24, 2016
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When there’s a Blessing of the Pets Sunday it is difficult not to begin with an animal story and when I think of animal stories I think of Alf Wight.  Alf Wight was born in Sunderland, England in 1916 but grew up in Glasgow where he also studied Veterinary Medicine in his twenties.  He returned to England to begin work as vet in 1940.  Throughout the 1970s and 80s the stories he told about animals and the Yorkshire people he encountered became so popular that his books were best sellers and the BBC had a long running series based on them called All Creatures Great and Small.  You will know Alf better, or course, by his pen name, James Herriot.

As a young vet, Herriot had a rather dangerous encounter with an off-the-charts large pig.  The pig had cut itself badly on barbed wire.  The gash needed stitching and the farmer called for a vet.  Young James arrived at the farm, put on his “Wellies,” and sauntered into the pen to take a look at his new patient.  The pig was in an ornery mood, however, didn’t want visitors, and came at James with a great charge.  Herriot, turned quickly and scaled the metre high wall behind him just in time to get away from the charging animal.  Undeterred, he tried again, more cautiously of course, but up and over the wall he went, that pig was out to flatten him.

So Herriot and the young farmer leaned against the wall and began to discuss what they would do.  Neither could get near the pig to settle it down.  “I don’t know what to do,” said the farmer, “She’s in a foul mood.”  The farmer’s old Dad had been watching the goings on and he came up and leaned against the wall with them.  He heard them questioning and, without a word, he set off for the farmhouse only to appear a few moments later with a few bottles of best Yorkshire bitter.  Herriot and the young farmer thought the bottles were for them but he walked right passed them muttering something about having seen this before.  He took the beer to the pig trough, poured it in, and the pig drank happily.  Ten minutes later the great animal was in the best of spirits.  Herriot was able to walk into the pen.  He drew up beside the happy pig and was able to stitch up the gash in the pig’s side in no time.  This was something Herriot had not learned in veterinary college.  The experience of the old farmer won the day; a little experience goes a long way.

The Letter to the Hebrews is one of the most difficult letters in the NT.  It is filled with complex Jewish tradition but it also has some of the greatest imagery in the NT about the person of Jesus and who he was in his nature.  I’ll get back to the benefits of experience in a moment but the first couple of chapters of Hebrews tell us a great deal about who the Son of God really was.  In chapter one the majesty of the messiah is portrayed.  The writer of Hebrews speaks of the divine Son’s role in the beginning with creation (v.2).  The Son, he says, “is the radiance of God’s glory.”  He is “the exact representation of his being (v.3).  He “sustains all things by his powerful word (v.3).”

Those are heady words, things we do not often think about when it comes to the second member of the triune God.  There’s a tendency perhaps in the Church to think about Jesus’ beginning in terms of the Christmas story and the babe of Bethlehem.  But the NT understands the messiah in much more complex ways.  Certainly the Christmas story was a beginning, a new act of God as he comes incarnate.  But 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem was not the beginning of the second member of the Trinity.  In Hebrews and elsewhere in the NT, the Son goes back to creation and before it.   He had a role in creation, and continues to have a role in sustaining the universe. Hebrews chapter one aligns Jesus directly with God.  In his core, in his being, he is divine and so he says to the Hebrews and to us, “You better pay attention to him.  You better pay attention to what he has said.”  His words are the most important words we will ever hear (1:2 & 2:1).

Then as we move further into the second chapter, the writer switches gears and begins to outline the human aspect of the messiah.  “For a little while… he was made lower than the angels” (v.9).  He had been greater, he was divine, but for a little while, he was made lower than the angels, “He had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way” (v.17).  He had to be human.

If you ever read the Gospels, you will find the incarnate Son of God, Jesus, was very human indeed.  You will find him expressing human emotion as he weeps over Jerusalem and at the death of a friend (Jn.11:25).  You will find Jesus becoming angry with those who made mockery of the temple worship.  You will find Jesus eating, drinking, talking, teaching, being deeply troubled in his spirit, and struggling with his suffering on the cross.  The one who was “the radiance of God’s glory” was at the same time one of us, fully human, “like his brothers and sisters in every respect,” the writer says (v.17 & v.14).

Hebrews tells us that this alignment with humanity had a few purposes.  First, it had something to do with defeating the power of death.  Second, it had something to do with atonement for sins and bringing us back into relationship with God.  But the third thing is extremely interesting, it tells us that the incarnation had something to do with sympathy and empathy and that the experience of authentic human life enables Christ to help us.  God thus enters human life, experiences life as we experience it, and is therefore better able to help us.  Verse 18 states, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18).  Much as it may seem odd when we think of an “all-knowing” God, there is the idea here that even for God a little experience goes a long way, that the incarnation was something new, something that enables God to enter into our experience and empathize and help us in our times of struggle and temptation.

One of my seminary professors wrote a newsletter once to a number of the students outlining some of the things he had been doing in ministry.  Right up front in one newsletter, he wrote of an opportunity to preach in a large congregation.  He said that during the early part of the service, he looked out at the congregation from his seat on the platform and the thought struck him that among all the people who were attending that morning, there were a number who were dealing with significant issues in their lives.  He imagined that there may be someone there who was facing a difficult surgery in the coming week and was fearful of what may happen.  He imagined that there may be another there who had just lost a loved one and was mired in grief.  He thought of those parents whose children were driving them crazy or disappointing them.  He thought of those in the “sandwich” generation being run ragged as they looked after not only children but aging parents.  Bob thought about a person who may have lost a job and who was wondering about the future and how they might make ends meet.  A number of these people he thought would be echoing the words of the prophet Malachi and the psalmists, “Where are you Lord?”  What are you doing?  And one or two might be struggling with faith and God.  Bob said that, as these thoughts crossed his mind, he wondered as he rose to preach, “What can I say to these people?  What can I say that would give a sense of peace, a sense of hope that God was with them and was working in their lives?”

The answer may lie here in Hebrews.  He hints at it here in chapter two and goes further in chapter four stating that because Jesus walked this earth like us, he is able to “empathise with our weaknesses” (4:15).  Empathy is not just sympathizing or feeling sorry for another, it is entering into another’s struggle because of one’s own experience.  Because Jesus entered into the fullness of humanity, then “let us then approach God`s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (4:16).  New Testament scholar William Barclay wrote:

A person without a trace of nerves has no conception of the tortures of nervousness.  A person who is perfectly physically fit has no conception of the weariness of the person who is easily tired and the pain of the person for whom life is never free from pain.  It is often true that the person who is clever and learns easily cannot understand why someone who is slow finds things so difficult.  A person who has never sorrowed cannot understand the pain at the heart of the person to whom grief has come.  A person who has never loved cannot understand the sudden glory or the aching loneliness of the lover's heart.  Before we can have empathy,  says Barclay, we must go through the same things as the other person has gone through - and that is precisely what Jesus did.

There was a woman in my former congregation a number of years ago who at a very young age was divorced.  Her husband had run off with another and she faced life alone with two young children.  The husband took no interest in the children, said he didn’t want the burden and so for a number of months she barely understood what had happened.  She knew that she had to care for the kids and she did that but night after night, she shared with me that she cried herself to sleep.  She felt betrayed, overburdened, she could not understand why this had happened to her and why she would have to struggle now through life to raise her children alone.  As we talked from time to time, she spoke of betrayal and anger.  She wondered how she would manage, how she would provide.  I talked to her, prayed with her but I could see she was struggling.  She went through the motions, her children went to school, she fed them, looked after them, brought them to church but she was like a woman carrying a heavy burden.

Then one day months after the break up, she came to church and looked like a different person.  Something had changed and after worship I asked her what had happened.  She admitted that she had been struggling, “Struggling deeply,” she said.  “Sometimes, I have yelled at God but a few nights ago, I was crying and the thought struck me that I am not the only one who has ever suffered in life.  The thought struck me that I am not the only person in life who has suffered, and even Jesus has suffered in life.  It struck me that no matter what, he was with me.  So with God’s help, I am going to do this.  I’m going to do it.  I’ve asked to go back to the Board (The Board of Education) in the Fall.  I’m going to do this and know God will help me.”

In life we have to face many things but as the United Church creed says, “We are not alone, we live in God’s world … and in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.”  Sometimes we can take matters into our hands and maybe we may do okay, but when God is with us, there is also that little bit of help from beyond.  And God knows what we need for he has been here, he has engaged our humanity, he has struggled, he has suffered, he has been tempted in life much as we are.  As the writer says in chapter four, “We do not have a God who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are … Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

The one who is “the radiance of God’s glory” lived among us and continues with us, helping in time of need.  Amen