July 14 How Low Can You Go?
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
Some people feel that we have become a culture in which sin is no longer taken very seriously. It’s that culture epitomized by every child on the team getting an award; the “everyone’s a winner” culture. Now, it’s true; we do seem to want everyone to feel good about themselves. And yet, based on what I’ve observed over my years as a pastor, very few of us do. Sure; you can get away with putting a lot more sexual explicitness in an R-rated movie today than you could have thirty years ago. But I don’t believe that, as a culture, we’ve become any less intently aware of our own sins, failures and shortcomings. I come to this conclusion based on the number of people over the years that have broken down in my church office or over the phone, expressing feelings of utter shame and hopelessness over their own sinful behaviors. I’d seen them just one Sunday prior, in their regularly appointed pew in their Sunday best with their bright, clean, shiny children; the picture of Christian perfection. And now, head in hands, they confess sins that I would have never imagined.
It was a warm, spring morning several years ago and I’d not yet left for the office when my parsonage phone rang. I’ll call him Bill and the words tumbled from his mouth. He wanted me to know: he was on his way to check in to a drug treatment facility. He was an addict and his life had fallen apart. He was a salesman in danger of being fired by the company. When he’d confessed to his wife, she told him to leave and never come back. She was finished with him. But most of all, he was ashamed; ashamed of his weakness. Ashamed that a substance he’d been controlling in order to be more focused, more energetic, more productive (for his wife and the company), was now fully in control of him. He couldn’t identify the exact moment it had changed. But now he felt the full weight of his helplessness and shame and utter hopelessness at what lay ahead.
Years ago I remember watching an episode of a TV show about a housewife, named Lynnette; the mother of three young boys and an infant. She recently lost her nanny and her husband is a traveling salesman and, consequently, her mental health is dangling by a thread. She has reached wit’s end. By mistake, she takes her son’s A.D.D. medication – which, of course, has the opposite effect on those who don’t have A.D.D. But when the energizing effects wear off, she is even more exhausted. She goes to see an acupuncturist who gives her a Chinese herbal tea designed to help her relax and get to sleep. Forgetting it’s her turn to lead the scout troop, she drinks the tea just before their arrival and her desperate attempts at rest are thwarted. Near the episode’s end, she shoves her children off on a neighbor and drives to a nearby park where she sits on the grass uncontrollably sobbing. She is discovered by two friends who come looking for her, concerned for her emotional state. She begins to unload on them about her inadequacies as a mother and human being, in general. But, as she describes her failures, the two women – whose children are now in high school – assure her that her feelings are nothing unusual. Every mother of young children has days when she feels like she’s falling apart at the seams. The two women share their own stories with Lynnette and it makes her feel better… and normal. The scene ends with Lynnette wondering why it is that they’ve never shared with one another like that before. She declares, “We should tell one another these things.” But, of course, we viewers know they won’t because it is not in our human nature to talk about our faults, failings or humiliations. It is in our nature to try and look as if we’re keeping it all together.
It has always been ironic and somewhat baffling to me that, of the multiple contexts each of us occupy – home, work, school, civic organizations, etc. – we seem to feel the least able to be who we are truly are (in all our human weakness) in the context of church.
But that is not what God intends for us. Many of us live our lives hopelessly trying to meet the expectations of others; struggling to make proud those who are never satisfied with us or accepting of us. But that is not what God desires for us.
God’s desire for us is not that we would wallow in shame and despair, not struggle to please those who are unplease-able, but that we might receive from God mercy and grace and eternal salvation even here and now.
God sent us a Savior who took on flesh; one who knows our human experience with all its weaknesses and temptations; one who stooped so low as to leave the glory of heaven to become a mere mortal; one who would fully bridge the gap, that dreadful gap, that sin had caused between us and God.
The book of Hebrews is a sort of combination letter/sermon to a group of early Christians who are struggling to keep the faith. Now it’s important for us to recognize that the writer of Hebrews does not want these early Christians to give up, to surrender their faith… not even to return to Judaism. And so, throughout this writing, he reminds them of the superiority of Jesus. That Jesus surpasses any other means or practices for seeking closeness to God. Jesus outdoes them all. Only Jesus can provide us with the kind of deep intimacy with God that we all yearn for deep within.
As former Jews, the recipients of this letter are well familiar with sacrifice as a means of addressing the problem of sin. But the sacrifices the Jews were instructed to make had their limits, as did the priests who offered them. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple, God’s “footstool on earth,” and offered sacrifice for the sins of himself and the people. But it was a process that needed to be repeated every year and that innermost sanctum, that place of greatest proximity to God, could only be entered once a year by one person.
But now, the writer of Hebrews proclaims, Jesus has served as both sacrifice and high priest. And because he is willing to sacrifice himself, there will never again be a need for blood sacrifice. Jesus, because he is God’s Son, because he was obedient unto death, because he submitted in all ways to God’s purposes, because he was perfect, has gained for us all the benefits of mercy and grace and eternal salvation.
Jesus gives us mercy and grace. Now, it’s important for us to understand what that means. The word for mercy here can also be translated compassion. So, while we might equate mercy with forgiveness, compassion adds another dimension. When we forgive from a place of compassion it is because we fully understand someone’s shortcomings. Jesus forgives our sins from a place of compassion because he understands our weaknesses and sins and failures; because he knows what it is like to be human in this world. Often when we fall short – when we sin, when we fail – others may say they forgive us; but they are also often disappointed in us and frustrated with us. Likewise, when we sin and fall short, we are often disappointed in ourselves and frustrated and perhaps even angry at ourselves. But Jesus views us differently. Jesus views us from a place of compassion. And so, the first thing we are called to do is to be truth tellers before the throne of grace. We can confess our sins to Jesus because Jesus doesn’t want to beat us up over them; Jesus wants to show us compassion. How great is that?
And secondly, Jesus wants to offer us grace. Now oftentimes, we interpret grace as forgiveness and nothing more. But Hebrews says that this is grace that helps us in times of need. This is transformative grace; grace that has the power to change us from the inside out. As Methodists, we would call this sanctifying grace; grace that causes us to think and speak and act differently.
Now, we don’t recognize it as modern, 21st century Americans, but grace was a concept that went beyond the religious sphere in the first century Mediterranean world. There was this thing called “The Three Graces.” Now truly, this is more than a social studies or history lesson so try to stay with me here. The first-century Mediterranean world was what’s known as a patron-benefaction culture. A few, wealthy people had access to resources – everything from land, to jobs, to food, to important social connections. And, the majority of people, who had few resources, relied on those wealthy folks to be their benefactors. And here’s how that played out through three expressions of grace:
First, the wealthy person needed to be graciously predisposed toward those in need. In other words, they needed to be compassionate and responsive to those in need. And so, they expressed their gracious responsiveness by the giving of gifts (the second grace). The gift itself was considered a grace because it was a tangible expression of the benefactor’s graciousness and generosity. So they shared gifts of food or countless other resources that were in short supply. So, the first grace is the gracious disposition of the benefactor toward the one in need, otherwise known as their client. The second grace is the gift itself; the tangible expression of the graciousness. And the third grace is the expression of thanks or gratitude on the part of the recipient. Now, how did you say thank you in that culture? You said thank you by singing the praises of your benefactor: saying gracious or complimentary things publically about your benefactor; the kinds of things that gave even greater honor to your benefactor. Praise in the ancient world was like gold; it was priceless.
Friends, Jesus is a benefactor to whom no one and nothing else can compare. The benefaction of Jesus far exceeds anything we could find anywhere else. We have received from Jesus the blessing of his grace. First of all, Jesus is graciously disposed toward us. He doesn’t want to beat us up over our sins and weaknesses. He wants to show us compassion. That is the first grace. Second, Jesus gives us grace that is a help to us in our time of need. We can, in fact, defeat the power of sin and conquer temptation in our own lives when we rely on the help of Jesus. The grace of Jesus is more than forgiveness that helps us to feel better. It is the actual work of Jesus within our lives that equips us to be better; to live as God’s reverent, obedient children. Jesus did it and he can equip us to do it through the giving of his grace, a tangible help in our times of need. Third, if we recognize our need for the gift that only Jesus can supply – grace that helps and strengthens us – then we will say “thank you” to Jesus by living a life of loyalty to him and by publically and privately praising him. We won’t hide our faith under a bushel. We will share with others the difference Jesus has made in our lives. Friends, talking about what Jesus has done for us is not just a matter of evangelism and church growth. Let me say that again because I want it to sink in. It is, in fact, common decency, brothers and sisters. Sharing with others what Jesus has done for us, praising Jesus for what he has done for us, is the most basic expression of “thank you” to Jesus for what he has given us… something no one else ever could: close and intimate fellowship with God, the elimination of the barrier of sin and shame. And furthermore, we thank Jesus through worship because praise and thanksgiving are at the heart of worship.
Friends, for far too long far too many of us have been beating ourselves up over our sins and weaknesses and failures and short comings and God does not want that for us. What God wants for us is eternal salvation and he has offered it to us through Jesus, our benefactor, the giver of mercy and grace. So let us take the time and the energy and the effort we expend being hard on ourselves and others and let us transform it into prayer and praise. Let us come before the throne of grace with boldness seeking the help that we can trust Jesus to give us and may the living of our lives be an offering of praise for the one who has done for us what no one else could ever do. Let us no longer hopelessly seek to curry the favor and please those of the world, giving in to the world’s standards and demands. But let us seek to please the one whose desire for us, whose gift to us, is eternal salvation. Because of Jesus, we can trade judgment for mercy and shame for salvation. Amen.
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