Sunday, November 04, 2018
Full Service Audio
Six years ago my best friend and I took a dream trip to Italy, visiting some of the most beautiful cities and sights I’ve ever been to – Florence and Assisi; Venice, Rome and the Amalfi Coast. It was spectacular! As I was getting myself ready on the day we were flying out, I was washing up a few lunch dishes that were in the sink, a little distracted with the last few things I had to get done that day, and filled with all that jittery anticipation you feel before going on a big trip. I reached into the cutlery tray to pick up some items I wanted to dry, being ever so careful – but not careful enough. Suddenly I felt a knife slice right through my finger, and when I looked down I saw much more blood than I care to remember (or that you want to hear about). Normally I’ll just ignore a little finger cut, but this one was fairly serious; with this one I needed to apply direct pressure immediately!
The thing about a good quality kitchen knife is that without very much pressure at all it can make quite a deep cut. So deep, in fact, that it kept re-opening throughout my journey through Italy, and I even bled onto the floor of one of the Vatican bookstores. (For some reason, I feel kind of proud to have left blood at the site of the Holy See!)
That’s almost the image that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is using in verse 12 to describe the effects of God’s Word in our lives: something so sharp it goes straight in, before you realize what’s happening or have the ability to stop it. The difference is that the writer isn’t talking about an ordinary kitchen knife but, as he says, a double-edged sword, a serious weapon that would not just cut your finger, but is intended to go right through your whole body, right through your heart.
The letter to the Hebrews was written, like many of the New Testament epistles, to exhort a community of early Christians –Christians of Jewish descent, in this case - to persevere, to hold fast to their convictions and to not lose faith in the face of what seems like fierce and unrelenting persecution. So it is not surprising that at some point sooner or later the author would refer them to the Holy Scriptures, and point them to the ancient stories of God’s faithfulness in the lives of their ancestors, as he does in the verses leading up to this morning’s passage. Isn’t that what we do when a fellow believer is facing difficulties in life, after all? When our friends and loved ones are facing challenges, we remind them of God’s faithfulness and God’s promises found in scripture.
So the author writes: “The Word of God is living and active.” God’s Word is living and active; it’s not boring or dry, it’s not dead or passive; it’s full of life and power. It encourages us and comforts us. Some passages speak right to our hearts, and when we read them it’s like they were written just for us, for our present circumstances, to encourage or comfort us.
But then the writer continues: “it is sharper than a two-edged sword, a point so fine, so precise it can divide your spirit from your soul.” What? A sword that divides our spirit and our soul; that can “come between joints and marrow:” That doesn’t sound nearly so comforting!
So what is he talking about? Well, the Word of God to this community of Hebrews was what we now call the Old Testament, and while these scriptures certainly contain some historical narrative and some poetry and proverbs, there are two elements that are often considered the cornerstone of OT scripture: first, there is the “Law,” which is found in the first 5 books of the Bible - also known as “The Books of Moses ” - which contain the Ten Commandments, but also instructions for building all the things they would need, and a whole series of detailed rules and regulations regarding daily life, mostly contained in the book of Leviticus (which I always recommend skipping). The other cornerstone of the OT is the Prophets, the books of all the major and minor prophets that contain harsh words about repenting and turning to God, or suffering the consequences of their rebellion, as well as prophecies about the coming of the Messiah who will be God’s salvation for the nation of Israel.
Other than the books of poetry, we don’t tend to consider the OT Scriptures as a source of great comfort, although with some faith and devotion you might do. Because the OT shows us many of God’s attributes: His sovereignty, His omnipotence, His holiness and righteousness, His patience. But when we read the OT we can easily become overwhelmed by the harsher words of law and judgement that it contains.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells them that the Word of God is able to judge, not just people’s actions, which are clearly visible to others and which anybody could judge. The word of God can see right inside to that place that nobody else sees, and judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No person can do that, but the word of God sees right inside our hearts, and can confront us with the reality of our own true thoughts and intentions. As they say, “we might be able to fool some of the people some of the time;” and very often we can even fool ourselves. But we cannot fool God, and immersing ourselves in the Word of God makes that very obvious.
Because they knew of the grace of God that was given through Jesus Christ; because they knew that grace was stronger than the law, the early Christians could easily have been tempted to reject the Hebrew scriptures with their emphasis on the law and the prophets. That many were tempted to do just that is shown in the words of Jesus himself, when he says, “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” The apostle Paul addresses the issue of Christian freedom from the law as well, reminding Christians that they are free from sin – that is, free from eternal punishment for our sin – but that doesn’t mean they are free to sin.
This is still a fairly common problem in the church today, where many will joyfully affirm God’s mercy and grace - which we should - but will also dismiss all talk of sin, law, obedience or discipline. The danger of this is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”: grace that we bestow on ourselves; grace that forgets that it came at a very high price – it cost God the life of His very own Son. And that which was costly to God, Bonhoeffer says, cannot be cheap to us.
So we memorize and quote scripture passages that affirm God’s love and grace; passages that comfort or empower us. But we resist or reject or overlook those sharp, pointed passages that confront us or challenge us.
Amidst the many comforting and uplifting passages that we read when we study our Bibles, we also come across passages that are so pointed they can literally makes us cringe, and say “ouch!” We feel the point of the sword touching on our own sinful attitudes, ungodly thoughts, bad habits or disobedience. And it makes us squirm, or run for cover. Quick, turn the page! As a minister, I frequently have people say to me, “I decided to read the Bible all the way through, and I had no idea of what was in it!!” It’s a real eye-opener! And honestly, it’s probably partly the fault of us preachers, because I can think of lots of passages that I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole while standing up here in front of you all within tomato-throwing distance!
Today, in our time, though, it seems that many people are still rejecting the Word of God for this reason. It makes us uncomfortable. It challenges our assumptions and many of our culturally accepted norms. It forces us to accept the reality that sometimes our intentions are not pure, that they are often self-centred rather than God-centred. And rather than study it, pray over it, and try to understand it, try to take it to heart, we just set it aside and ignore it and hope it will go away. But it never does: the Word of God is everlasting.
When it comes down to it, I think we don’t really want to give up our self-centred ways because it means sacrificing things that we don’t want to let go of. That’s no fun; even when we know what we stand to gain by it! Jesus tells a story of a rich young ruler who had followed all of the laws of Moses from the day he was born, and who thought that this would earn him eternal life; but Jesus told him to give all his possessions to the poor and follow Him, and in that way he would inherit eternal life. The young man walked away. He was confronted with the thing that he was not willing to give up; he was forced to admit that there was something he prized more than God.
The word of God – the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the very person of Jesus himself - confronts our behaviours, and even our attitudes and beliefs. It tells us, “repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Repent? I’m a decent person, what do I need to repent of? The word of God tells us, “If you hate someone, you have already murdered them in your heart. You should love your enemies.” Well, He doesn’t know what that so-and-so did to me! Yes He does.
The Word of God says, “It’s not God’s will that you should cheat on your spouse!” Eh, is it really as bad as that? It won’t hurt them if they don’t find out. It says that if you even look at someone else longingly, you have already cheated on your spouse. But c’mon, I’m married, not dead!
I don’t think you like the book of Hebrews anymore, do you? It is one of the most challenging books of the New Testament. But being challenged once in a while is good for us!
The thing is, if we ignore or resist the pointed tip of God’s sword, we do ourselves a great disservice. Even Dr. Phil says, “You can’t change what you won’t acknowledge!” Because unless we really understand and grasp the reality of the human condition, we can never truly appreciate or appropriate the full and amazing grace of God. We will be left with that cheap grace that we bestow on ourselves, which cannot compare to the amazing, complete, self-sacrificing grace of the Holy, Almighty God who created Heaven and earth. Scripture tells us that the tip of the sword is sharp; but it also tells us who is holding the sword.
You see, the thrust of this passage, although obviously intended as a warning, can also lead to great encouragement. It’s like when you go to the doctor – you have to hear the bad news before you can get to the treatment. You might have a problem, but there is someone who can help. The good news that Jesus brought was not that we are all just perfect just as we are, but that there is a way to be healed of our human condition, a way back to wholeness and peace, a way back to God. Yes, there is sickness in the human spirit, but here is the cure, and it’s a free gift! No insurance companies needed.
The second part of this passage that we heard contains the most effective treatment for the human condition. The author says, “Since, then, we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession of faith.” Although sin is a reality of our human existence, we also have an advocate in whose name we are freely given forgiveness for all of our sins, past, present and future.
To understand this, it helps to understand the role of the High Priest in ancient Judaism. The role of the priest was to come before God on behalf of the people, and make a sacrifice to thank God for creation and for the covenant, and to atone for the sins of Israel. The priest also had the responsibility of representing God before the people, bringing comfort, and offering guidance. The priest was supposedly very educated and of high moral character, a particularly good specimen to represent the people, but an imperfect human being nonetheless. The priest was offering sacrifices for his own sins as well as those of others.
The writer of Hebrews presents Jesus as the perfect human and the one who is firmly “on our side;” who is able to represent us perfectly, because he experienced the trials of humanity and he remembers what it is like to be weak, to get sick, to be hungry and tired, to be tempted over and over from every angle. But he is also, appropriately, firmly on God’s side: on the side of perfect righteousness, on the side of holiness, on the side of truth; because he is, in fact, God himself, come to earth in human flesh.
Jesus fulfilled the ancient promise of God, found throughout the books of the prophets, that he would eventually send his people a great high priest who would do in perpetuity, and perfectly, what the regular priesthood symbolized but could only do in part, imperfectly and temporarily. Jesus is the culmination of the whole idea of priesthood. He can sympathize with human weakness, temptation and suffering. But he belongs to a different sort of priesthood, one we can completely rely on forever.
That’s why we can count on Jesus, no matter what we have been through. No matter what we have suffered, Jesus has been there, and is able to suffer with us. Whatever we are faced with, Jesus understands, because He has lived in human flesh himself.
Have you been betrayed? Jesus understands betrayal. Are you grieving the loss of someone dear to you? Jesus knows the pain of losing someone he loves deeply. Have you been dealt with unfairly? Although he had done nothing wrong, Jesus was executed as a criminal. He understands injustice. Jesus understands all of our suffering, and is in the position to walk with us through it, unlike any other human being to walk the earth.
And because he is also firmly on the side of God, he is in a unique position to be the perfect bearer of God’s comfort and mercy to you.
Are you facing a temptation that feels too strong to resist? Have you already given into temptation? Jesus understands the power of temptation. No matter what we have done, Jesus understands our human weakness because he has been there, and so he is sympathetic to our situation. So he is in the perfect position to appeal to God for mercy and forgiveness on our behalf. And because he is the very incarnation of God, he has all the authority in Heaven and on earth to shower us with forgiveness and relieve the burden of our guilt.
So no matter what we may have done in our lives, when we reach out and take the hand of Jesus, he gently leads us to the Father, and presents us holy, whole, pure and loved, in His name.
So you see how important it is to have such a wonderful, sympathetic high priest! The Word of God, as challenging and pointed as it is, is a wonderful gift, because it opens our eyes to who we are, to what our condition is, and then it points us straight to the solution: Jesus Christ, our advocate, and our hope. Amen.