Three earthy, relatable characters – a soldier, an athlete, and a farmer – played important roles in last Sunday’s Scripture lesson.
Writing ancient-but-ever-true words to his young protégé Timothy, the apostle Paul lifts up a soldier, an athlete, and a farmer as images of what it means to become a devoted follower of Jesus and to live a spiritual life of discipleship in Christ.
A soldier doesn’t forget a soldier’s purpose. A soldier understands that, if a battle is to be survived and its objectives reached, then she or he must remain laser-focused on the task at hand and disciplined in making choices and following orders. So also with discipleship in Jesus – laser-focused on the task at hand, disciplined in making choices, eager and willing to follow heaven’s orders.
An athlete, like a soldier, is disciplined in action and never underestimates the effort it takes to stay on top of one’s game. Athletic dedication and strength of character provide the wisdom to cross the finish line of a well-lived life of discipleship in Christ!
A farmer, never simply focused on the chores at hand and work of the day, but appreciating the importance of always training attention on the end result: the harvest. So it is with the wise follower of Christ Jesus who never forgets that spiritual labor toughens a disciple for the hard work of growing and harvesting a bin-buster of wisdom and a bumper crop of spiritual fruit.
And if you’re fruitfully wise, you’ll remember. You’ll never forget and always remember Jesus Christ, enabled by the Holy Spirit to use your senses to fuel your mind and bring into your heart the presence of who and what you are remembering, a calling to and letting in the very presence of our Lord and Savior.
That thought — Jesus, risen from the dead — must always be in our remembrance. Because if and when you do remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, then who he is and his victory over death will reorder your life, transform you more and more into his image, and align your priorities with his.
That’s a lot to take in and unpack, I know, and it’s tempting to leave it at that.
But no, the journey of discipleship – the story of God with us – keeps moving forward. And one mighty big assumption is driving this morning’s passage through Scripture. And that assumption is this: For a relationship to exist between God and God’s people, as well as among groups and between individuals, plenty of interpersonal infrastructure needs repair and replacement. And our lesson from the New Testament book of Hebrews insists that the only way for all that long-overdue reconciliation and restoration to happen is if God does it, in Christ alone, by the breath of the Spirit.
Listen for the Lord speaking to you this day.
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.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness. And because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” As he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 4:14-5:10)
Harriet was slip-sliding away from the church.
A baby-boomer like a lot of us, a life-long Presbyterian like some of us, Harriet was gradually losing her grip on the faith of her childhood.
The many alternative faiths in the marketplace of 21st-century America were starting to sound attractive, but she wasn’t comfortable with her drift,so she sought out some help.
The expected advice was no surprise – almost cliché, if it weren’t so true: Keep your eyes glued to the cross, and keep your heart fixed on Jesus.
Her response was startling. “Jesus scares me,” she said. “Always has. I don’t like to think about Jesus. I’m not sure why, but I just don’t.”
Perhaps her trouble lay in the fact that there is something undeniably unhelpful in this idea of Jesus as “the great high priest.” High priests are a particular kind of mediator – in the Jewish world of Jesus’s day, the only kind of mediator who could make things right between sinful humans and a holy God.
Jews like Jesus understood the life-saving role that the high priest played in one’s salvation hopes. But for most of us today, the idea of a “great high priest” sounds like gibberish –certainly not something you have to have for daily living in right relationship with God.
Harriet, for one, hated such talk.
“I don’t like to think about myself as sinful, and I don’t think of God as holy.” Even though she was raised to believe such things, she was drifting away from those beliefs now.
If a baptized “child of God’s promise” like Harriet had such reservations, it’s no wonder that those raised outside the Christian faith find this whole idea of a high priest quaint. For some, the idea that Jesus is the only mediator who can make peace between you and God is downright offensive. But for Harriet, such talk was frightening. And who could blame her.
To hear our lesson tell it, the Word of God – Jesus Christ – is living and active. As another preacher puts it, this living Word doesn’t just make a point – it is sharper than any double-edged sword. This living Word doesn’t just tickle your imagination – it penetrates to the depths of your being. This living Word isn’t something you can hear and forget –it uncovers the secrets of your heart. This living Word isn’t something you can make judgments about – it will judge you.
Experience tells me that, when people are thinking of deserting the faith, they often hide their thoughts – even from themselves.
Harriet’s openness was the exception, though at first even she didn’t understand where her thoughts were taking her.
Our Hebrews lesson warns that we can’t hide our thoughts of desertion from God.God knows what you and I are thinking; our thoughts are “laid bare.” The Greek word used in the original text of the Bible draws the gruesome picture of a person with his head yanked back, so that his jugular vein is fully exposed, and the executioner’s sword is poised to slice it open.
Zoinks! This whole living Word of God thing is nothing to trifle with.
Then, thanks be to God, comes the “therefore.”
“Therefore, since then, because” we have such a wonderful high priest who comes to us from heaven, we must hold on tight to what we believe.
Unlike the Jewish high priests who went through the veil into the temple’s Holy of Holies once a year to make atonement for the sins of their people, Jesus has gone through the heavens into the very presence of God, where he remains today.
Unlike Jewish high priests who are the merely human descendants of a priestly lineage, Jesus is the very Son of God. So, my friend Harriet, why would you let go of your faith in such an awesome mediator who works things out between you and God?
That’s a hard question to answer, and that’s not where Harriet wanted to go. But that’s exactly where our Hebrews lesson finally goes.
It isn’t just the majesty of Jesus that’s such a big deal but also the sympathy of Jesus that makes him such a wonderful high priest. Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses, because Jesus has been tempted in every way that you and I are tempted, YET – unlike you and I – Jesus was without sin.
Jesus “gets it” – he gets you, gets your struggles, gets your failings, and because he “gets it,” Jesus sympathizes and empathizes with the whole sordid mess that sin and evil try to make of your life.
And because he “gets it,” Jesus is merciful and compassionate to you and me, because he knows first-hand just how hard evil is poking, prodding and punching you and me and working overtime to try and rattle the foundations of our faith and knock us off our solid rock.
You don’t think Jesus was ever tempted to leave the God he loved?
Think back to his wilderness temptations – those classic temptations in the desert we always hear during Lent that sum up every temptation you’ve ever faced. Each one of them tempted Jesus to turn away from total reliance on God.
Think back to that moment in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus is tempted to turn his back on God’s whole enterprise of salvation.
Think back to that moment on the cross when Jesus thinks his Father has left him for dead:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus didn’t give in to evil, of course, but he was surely tempted in every way, just as we are.
And yes, that includes the temptation to step away from trust in God.
Harriet needed to understood that.
If she had, she might have been able to talk more openly to Jesus about her doubts and questions. She could talk with a friend, because she thought her trusted confidant was very human and compassionate. How much more is that true of Jesus? The very essence of the once-in-very-human-flesh-and-compassionate God!
Because of Jesus, God felt and feels with us.
Because of Jesus, God suffered and suffers with us – whether it’s the misery of sorrow, or the prickle of fear, or the nausea of sickness, or the agony of temptation, or the intensity of depression, or the lure of addiction, or the empty-hollowness of loneliness.
That’s the incredible miracle of the Incarnation – God coming to us and living among us as one of us, the miracle of a great, sympathetic high priest who is Jesus, the Son of God, who knows, understands and sympathizes with our every weakness, because he’s walked way farther than just a mile in our shoes.
That’s the Good News we declare whenever we proclaim “Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” We declare and proclaim that, because of Jesus Christ, God knows how hard it is to be one of us – how incredibly challenging it is to turn away from sin, and to resist temptation, and to live faithfully.
And because God knows, understands and sympathizes, you and I can feel free to rush to the Lord in every time of trouble and doubt, and with bold honesty, confess to God every failure, every shortcoming, every stumble, every fall, EVERY SIN, and with full confidence, we can expect to receive grace and mercy – all because God “gets it.”
That is the promise of God for you, and for me, and for all the Harriets whom the Lord knows by name and won’t ever let slip-slide away into oblivion.
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, October 2, 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, Scott Hoezee, and Stan Mast inform the message.