Pierced with Grace

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa Bernini

A sermon originally delivered to Calvary (Community) Reformed Church in New Berlin, WI. Texts were Job 23 and Hebrews 4:12-16.

 

Job presented us with some difficult words, and truly, Job is a difficult story. The writing of Job was a way to try to come to terms with suffering and the age-old question: why do bad things happen to good people? And as a whole, the Book of Job does not so much give an answer to the question, but rather is an invitation to a journey, a journey which is not neat and tidy and simple, but a journey of wrestling, striving, and struggling, because as it is, we only see through a glass, dimly.

But today, we found ourselves in the context of the depths of Job’s despair. Job was just admonished by this friend, Eliphaz, and our reading today was the response offered by Job.

“If I go forward, he is no there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” (Job 23:8-9).

Job looked north and south, east and west, and saw no sight of God. Difficult words, but perhaps you can relate.

***

We don’t know exactly was was going on in the community to which Hebrews was written, but we do know that they lost some of the intensity which had indelibly marked the first generation of Christians, and the exciting and intense story from Acts. They have become sluggish and lax in their faith, perhaps disillusioned and discouraged, and it is clear that they were at least thinking about returning to Judaism.

We know that they have suffered in the past, and perhaps some of this pressure is compounding on their discouragement and disillusionment with the current state of things. Perhaps like Job, they found themselves looking forward and back, left and right, but in doing so, were finding it difficult to perceive God’s presence.

The Book of Hebrews is essentially a long sermonic epistle arguing that the Christian faith is better than other options because Jesus is better, and we ought to keep our eyes on Jesus. The writer has argued that Jesus is greater than the prophets of old, Jesus is better than the angels, and in the third chapter, the writer argues that Jesus is greater than even Moses, Jesus is greater than the greatest.

It is here that the writer discusses some history with them, not just for information, but to make it meaningful for their lives now. You see, through Moses, God brought the ancients out of slavery in Egypt. God brought them out, and prepared them for a journey and promised them rest when they reached the land that God was giving to them.  But, the writer pointed out, they did not enter their rest. They rebelled against God, despite all that God had done for them, they were filled with unbelief. But unlike the father of the tormented boy that Jesus healed, the ancient people did not ask God for help with their unbelief.

They were rebellious, they turned from God, and they did not enter into the rest that was prepared for them. And there is a rest prepared for us, too, but this is not just a temporal rest, this is not simply a rest from wandering through the dry and barren places of the world, it is an eternal rest, a rest from wandering through the dry and barren places of existence. It is a rest far greater than the rest of our ancestors.

It is a warning to the hearers not to stray into unbelief.

Now, unbelief is not doubt. Doubt can be faithful. Doubt which is faithful drives us toward God, it drives us toward confronting God, toward arguing with God, toward wrestling with God. It drives us to accept the offer to put our fingers in his hands and our hands in his side, it drives us to accept the invitation to “taste and see that the LORD is good”. Faithful doubt invites us to reach out toward God, even if we are unsure if God is there, faithful doubt allows others to believe for us even if we do not think that we have the capacity for belief. But unbelief, as we saw in the ancient people drives us away from God, to turn back and return the way whence we came. God brought the ancients out from slavery into freedom. But the people preferred slavery and turned back to return.

It is this sort of unbelief that the author of Hebrews cautions the hearers. It is with this stern warning that the author of Hebrews tries to uphold and sustain the community.

***

[T]he word of God is living and active, we read, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him ho creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

These, too, are difficult words. The word of God, the truth of God, is living and active. We are given an image of piercing, and cutting, disassembling, even dissecting. The truth of God reveals all, it takes all apart, it examines all. God examines the deepest recesses of our being, the secret places where we harbor our deepest thoughts, so deep that perhaps we don’t even fully know.

We are naked and laid bare, completely exposed, completely on display, being able to hide nothing. The writer seems to be telling them, in effect, “you cannot hide your sluggish faith, your neglect, your inattention to your faith.” The truth of God pierces deeply, it cuts, it dismembers.

***

But from this, the writer makes a shift. We need not be ashamed as Adam and Eve in the garden and seek to hide from the Divine and we need not fear. The truth of God is living and active, sharp, piercing, and separates all, but “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.”  Not only do we not need to be afraid of God, but we can hold fast to our confession, hold fast to our hope.

You see, the job of the high priest is to represent the people to God. But our high priest, Jesus, is more than just a high priest, because has passed through the heavens, he is not just on earth, but he is in the very divine presence. Not only this, the writer continues, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” that is, Jesus, the mediator between us and God the Father, is not removed from our experience, is not completely alien to our experience. Indeed, Jesus suffered with us, that’s what sympathy means, to suffer with. Our high priest is able to suffer with us in our weaknesses, “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.”

***

And this, I think, is the essence of our faith, and this is the beauty of it. While it is true that nothing can be hidden from God, it is not the threat that calls us into faithfulness, but the promise. The promise that Jesus can suffer with us in our weaknesses, that Jesus was tempted in every way as us, that Jesus understands — understands — what we are going through. God is not only transcendent, but also immanent. God is other, but God is also near.

And this is the hope that we grab hold of for dear life and never let go. That when we find ourselves like Job, and we look north and south, and east and west and we can find no sight of God, we can hold onto the hope that we are not alone, that even if we have difficulty perceiving it, that Christ is suffering with us, and that we can boldly approach God’s throne so that we can receive mercy and find grace. Indeed, the word of God pierces, but it is not a piercing for destruction, it is not to kill or maim or harm or damage. After all, the eternal Word of God made flesh found himself pierced and torn, but it is through that that he was able to give life to the world, and it is this promise to which we hold, to which we grasp, to which we cling.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea;
a great High Priest, whose name is Love,
who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on his hands,
my name is written on his heart;
I know that while in heaven he stands
no tongue can bid me thence depart,
no tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair
and tells me of the guilt within,
upward I look, and see him there
who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died,
my sinful soul is counted free;
for God the Just is satisfied
to look on him and pardon me,
to look on him and pardon me.

Behold him there! the risen Lamb,
my perfect, spotless righteousness;
the great unchangeable “I AM,”
the King of glory and of grace!
One with himself, I cannot die,
my soul is purchased by his blood;
my life is hid with Christ on high,
with Christ my Savior and my God,
with Christ my Savior and my God.

(Charitie Lees Bancroft)

 

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