Scripture: Hebrews 4:12-16
An Intro Completely Unconnected to Current Events
Let us imagine, just for a moment, that we were seeking to fill an important and highly valued role in society. Maybe we could even imagine that this role had a judicial dimension……and maybe even an intercessory role—in the sense of interceding in those moments requiring clarity, standing in the place that determines what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, justice or a violation….. I know it might be challenging, but try really hard to imagine it.
Because the author of Hebrews also imagines such a place and such a time. And in that imagining, the author presents us with two candidates for this high office.
There is a dramatic difference between the two candidates, in the author’s perspective. This difference affects whether or not they are fit for the office in question…… It affects their ability to be the person they are called to be in that role by fellow humanity and by God.
What is this dramatic difference?…… The difference between the two is sympathy.
Our translators render in v.15: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness.”
That’s example #1…… candidate #1…… official #1……
This official is one who is unable to sympathize with weakness…… Weakness…… What is “weakness” in our minds today? What do we think of when we think of those who are “weak”?
Do we think of children?
Of victims of abuse?
Do we imagine women or men?
What about the homeless?
Or those in extreme poverty?
Do we think of specific places…way over there?
Do we think of ourselves?
Increasingly, when I think about “weakness” I find myself thinking about true disciples of Jesus. Think about it…… Think about what life would be like if we really took Jesus at his word:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34 NRSV)
“Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor.” (Luke 18:22 NRSV)
“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15 NRSV)
This first high priest has none of that. [v.15 slide] This first high priest is unable to sympathize with weakness. Instead, this first high priest symphatizes—we are left to presume—not with weakness with but strength. This is a high priest who would speak for power. This is a high priest who would value those with influence, those with wealth, those with respect……
But you know what?
According to Hebrews, that official is not the kind we need.
The official we need is not the one who is unable to sympatize with weakness, but the one who has experienced every weakness, or to use the words of the author of Hebrews in v.15: “we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
Now, next week we’re going to build on this point in particular, exploring more about Jesus’s role—how Jesus is able to function for us on account of being sympathetic with our weakness.
Today, I am hoping to help us see both that Jesus sympathizes with weakness, and the kinds of experiences that Jesus is able to sympathize with.
Scandal (Matthew 1)
We don’t have to get very far into Jesus’ life before we begin to see hardship. In fact, his problems started before he was even born.
The very pregnancy that bore him also bore the weight of scandal. While scripture thankfully doesn’t record the murmurings of the gossip-mongers, the accusations and suppositions against Jesus’s mother Mary became so great that Joseph thought divorce was the only option for either of them to have any type of life. One can almost imagine the violent and aggressive speech that would force a person to have to move, to get divorced, and to have their life destroyed forever. Almost, we can imagine something like that today. But I’m talking about the story of Jesus’s birth in Matthew 1, of course……
Anybody here ever face some kind of scandal?
Unimportant (Luke 2)
That family (that almost didn’t make it) had some other strikes against it too. They were so insignificant in their own extended family that they—Joseph and the severely pregnant Mary—were forced to sleep in the quarters where the animals would be housed when it was cold. Other family members more significant would have been offered the guest and main rooms upstairs. (Luke 2:7)
And of course the city of Jesus’s birth was so unimportant that the Bible—the bible—calls it one of the “little clans” (in Micah 5:2). If that isn’t a slight I don’t know what is.
Anybody here at odds with family members?
Anybody here from a family with no real fame? (or certainly no good name?)
Persecuted by Government (Matthew 2)
Of course, for an insignificant kid Jesus caused quite a stir. His birth prompts a genocide that he himself narrowly escapes from. King Herod, a megalomaniac and power-hungry king famous for siding with Rome against his fellow countrymen, decided this rumored baby-who-would-become-king was too great a threat. He does not seek to find out who Jesus is so he can neutralize this single threat; he instead decides to have all the male toddlers and infants in the whole city slaughtered.
Most of us, I would imagine, cannot even really comprehend genocide, despite the fact it has happened and continues to happen in our own lifetime.
But I do suspect some might know what it feels like to be on the wrong side of the law, or for the government to be a real obstacle to you or your family’s health and wellbeing. I know I do.
Refugee (Matthew 2)
Now of course, Jesus’s parents could not stay where they were. The threat of violence—a very much realized violence in their absence—was simply too great. So they did what families and individuals have done for thousands of years: they left. They abandoned home, family, friends, jobs, doctors, grocery stores, favorite restaurants, and what wealth they could not carry……and they became refugees.
Anyone here ever have to abandon their home and everything they have known in order to flee violence? I know there are some in our community who have. There may be some in our community who still need to, as well.
Prejudice against Place of Origin (John 1)
Of course, Jesus’s family didn’t stay in Egypt. After a time (after Herod died, at least), they returned to the province of Judea. They still seem to have been quite wary of the government, because they found a real hole-in-the wall to live in. I mean: if they had the Witness Protection Program back then, this is where they’d send the folks who testified against the mob.
But it worked—in the sense that Jesus was able to grow up in complete obscurity. But it backfired too: Jesus was discounted because of where he came from (John 1:46). He faced prejudice because of where he once lived.
Anyone ever face prejudice because of where you were born? Or where you live now or previously?
Ever disrespected because you live in Kansas, or Atchison (wherever that is)??
They brought the SWAT team to arrest him (Mark 14)
It may be that all this contributed to Jesus’s reputation as something of a hooligan. At least, that’s they way they approached him when his enemies decided to wield the state against him. They brought the whole SWAT team to that grove named Gethsemane in order to arrest him, causing even Jesus himself to marvel at how over-gunned they were (Mark 14:48-49).
Have you ever been arrested?
Have you ever looked into the barrel of a gun?
Have you ever had an enemy amass a ludicrous number of allies against you?
Unjustly Convicted of a Crime—Race Played a Role (Luke 22-23)
Jesus is arrested, of course. And even though he is unarmed and offers no resistance, his arrest is not without bloodshed. Escalated violence results in escalated violence; that is the way things have always been.
Jesus faces not one but four trials—all of them shams, of course. The scriptures tell of perjured testimony (Mark 14:56), they suggest bribed witnesses (Matthew 26:59), they describe biased and prejudiced judges, and they relate (multiple times!) that everyone involved knew of Jesus’s innocence. There is not even a hint of integrity…… or pretense…… of justice that is offered. Jesus is unjustly convicted of a crime he did not commit, and he faces a sentence far in excess of what the law even prescribed—had he been guilty.
Have you ever been the victim of a false accusation?
Have you ever suffered for something that wasn’t your fault?
Have you ever had to experience the injustice that sometimes comes at the hand of the judicial system?
Have you ever been victimized by “the system” that it might maintain the status quo—which may be working for other people but obviously isn’t for you?
You see, these are the things Jesus experienced. These are the “weaknesses” that were forced upon him by his culture and society. Some of them—when we speak so frankly about them—probably make you uncomfortable…… I know they do me.
But the fact remains that the people that Jesus is going to identify with are the ones who have similar experiences. That’s just how sympathy works. We sympathize with someone who has been through what we’ve been through. The people in this world that Jesus has sympathy for (and with) are the ones who are in those circumstances as well……
the unimportant and the discounted,
the ones run over by the government and the falsely accused and convicted;
prisoners and refugees;
victims of prejudice and unnecessary violence;
those harmed because they are the wrong race, or they won’t play by the right rules, or they threaten someone’s power.
This is what Jesus experienced in this world, so these are people Jesus has a strong sympathy with.
Back to Hebrews (v.16)
All this then drives us to the prayer of v.16:
“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.” (Hebrews 4:16 NRSV)
The fact that we have a sympathetic high priest in Jesus opens up important possibilities for us.
Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we are able to approach the throne of God.
Because Jesus has sympathy with us……we know that the throne of God is somewhere we will find grace.
Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… all shame is driven out of us (as light drives out darkness) and we are liberated to a boldness in God’s presence.
Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we know we will receive mercy.
There’s one more thing here too, and this last one is huge but easily missed—often because, as in the NIV we read from each week, it is incorrectly translated. The NIV translators added some words (“us” and “our”) to that last phrase, redirecting the help inwardly instead of outwardly as the author of Hebrews has actually written. It’s not that we “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” but that we “receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.”
Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we discover in ourselves the grace to help others in a time of need. In other words, because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we are empowered to be sympathetic with others.
The Word of God (Outro)
Come back with me to Hebrews 4:12-13 again:
“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, 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 [God] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (Hebrews 4:12–13 NRSV)
This is the discernment piece. This is how we recognize where our sympathies and our allegiances and our actions need to lie. We receive mercy and find grace with a purpose, and that purpose is to help in time of need.
How is it we are to discern how to help?
A part of that involves the kind of radical honesty we see in vv.12-13… A radical commitment to exposing those darknesses within ourselves—in our present and in our past. We make this commitment because we truly believe that God already knows those things, and that God is our only and true and one righteous judge.
And that means it does not matter much what others think of these things and of these circumstances for us.
Because sympathy—as it turns out—is a strength that proves more than sufficient……not only to draw us to God and to each other, but to transform this world: from top to bottom, from inside to out.
To God be the glory. Amen.