October 17 2021
For 2000 years of Christian history, Christians have made two errors in how they think about Jesus Christ. The first error is the belief that because Jesus is God, He is just too distant, too far away, too disgusted by your own lack of personal holiness, to care for you; and the second is that since He is just a man like us, He is actually just like us, and unable to do much more than be there for us.
If you have ever wondered why Roman Catholics developed a theology of praying to Mary, it developed as a way of making sure Jesus heard them. This step was logical for Roman Catholics because the Roman tradition teaches that Jesus is God; but there is a tendency in that tradition to neglect the fact that He is also fully human. So, pray to Jesus’ Mother. There is no better way to make sure he actually listens to you than bugging his Mother. We can find a similar error in all kinds of churches, not just in Rome. Often in churches that we would call, “evangelical,” Jesus is only spoken of as holy, perfect, and distant, so that you leave church with a strong sense that Jesus is not happy with you, and nothing else. We forget so easily that Jesus is fully God, and fully Man.
On the other hand, “Jesus is my homeboy.” Detached from his divinity, the human Jesus becomes so relatable, so familiar, so much like us in our thinking that He becomes a symbol for whatever we want Him to be. This Jesus is like the Facebook algorithm. He tells me exactly what I want to hear, He reinforces what I already believe, and He exists to make me feel better.
When white, European men began the project of discovering the “real Jesus,” or the true “historical Jesus,” and not the Jesus of myth who primitive people believed was God, the Jesus they found was just a picture of themselves. Jesus was not God, He was rational, reasonable, Jesus was a white, enlightenment European man. And the fruits of that project of searching for the true Jesus of history can be best seen in two of the darkest moments in European history.
Detached from his divinity, this Jesus became a symbolic figure who blesses the enslavement of our own flesh and blood in Africa, or at least turns a blind eye to it. “You gotta do what you gotta do, especially for the economy.” Detached from his divinity, Jesus became the German Jesus of Nazism, who somehow blesses the persecution and murder of his own people. Because he just became a version of ourselves. We so easily forget that Jesus was and is fully God.
Imagine the plight of humanity as if we are all stuck in a deep pit that we could never climb out of by our own power. The view of Jesus Christ as God but not man sees Jesus as someone who throws down directions for you to get out of the pit on your own, maybe a tool every now and then, all from the comfort of level ground. “Here you are, best of luck, see you on the other side, or not, that is up to you,” says Jesus. Jesus Christ who is man but not God simply jumps down into the pit with you, but has no way of getting out. He can spend time with you down there, but will offer you no meaningful assistance in your plight. Neither can ultimately save you.
The Epistle to the Hebrews reads, “since then we have a high Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect was tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
We know next to nothing about who wrote Hebrews, where it was written, or who received it. We do, however, know that the audience must have been Jewish Christians. The message of the letter is that Jesus Christ, the Jewish Carpenter who was crucified by the Romans not long before this letter was written, is the God of Israel. Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected one, is the very same God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush, who parted the Red Sea, who gave Moses the Law, who spoke through the Prophets; this man Jesus Christ was and still is the very same God of Israel. He is fully God, and He is fully human.
Our Processional Hymn last Sunday began, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, great David’s greater Son!” This pattern of thinking, “great David’s greater Son,” perfectly captures the pattern and theme of the Book of Hebrews in relation to Jesus Christ. Who is great David’s greater Son? Why, Jesus Christ, of course. Hebrews takes a central figure, idea, leader, or symbol from Israel’s history and reflects on their greatness for Israel, but also how they themselves point to a need for a greater version of themselves.
Take King David from that hymn, for example. I often hear Christians say things like, “what the church needs today is a leader like David.” What I want to say is, “I know what you mean, but that is actually the last thing the church needs these days.” Yes, David was a great warrior, king, leader, man of prayer; but David raped Bathsheeba, had her husband murdered, and lied about it until Nathan the Prophet forced him to confront the reality of his sin. Have you read what is being exposed about the church these days? We do not need more of that.
And this was only one of many instances when David turned his back on God. The seed for the unfaithfulness of Israel’s long line of Kings germinated in the heart of King David. We do not need another David, we need a perfect leader, a perfect king, we need David’s greater son, or as another great hymn puts it that we sang yesterday, “hail him the heir of David’s line whom David Lord did call, the God incarnate, man divine, and crown him Lord of all.”
Chapters 1 and 2 of Hebrews compares Jesus to Angels and the Law, because Jewish tradition teaches that the Angels themselves were the messengers of the Law to Moses. The author of Hebrews essentially says, “remember how great Moses was, and how great it was that he received the law from the messengers of God?” Well, Jesus is above the angels, he is higher than the angels, though for a time he became lower than the angels, meaning that Jesus is the great, perfect messenger of God’s Word to God’s people. Jesus is Himself the good news that He Himself brings to us. Jesus is both the messenger and the message, for he is greater than the Angels who gave the law, and He is the fulfillment of the Law. Though we knew Him as a human like us, He was and is the God of Israel.
Chapters 3 and parts of chapter 4 take the same approach as chapters 1 and 2, but in these passages Hebrews reflects on Jesus as the greater, perfect Moses, who leads his people into a greater and perfect land of Promise, God’s rest. Moses built a tabernacle in the wilderness where God lived among his people. Jesus created the entire universe where God dwells. Moses began leading Israel into the Promised Land, but ultimately could not lead Israel into the Promised Land because of his own shortcomings and sin. But even if he could, Israel’s promised land was lost, because they turned their backs on God.
Jesus, however, can lead his people into the promised land, because he is not sinful, he is perfect. And the promised land of God’s people is not geographically bound, it is not that hotly-contested strip of land to the East, it is his rest. We can never lose God’s rest, because we can never lose Jesus when we cling to him. Jesus is greater than Moses, for he is both the leader of God’s people, and the one to whom God’s people are led. He is the better Moses, and He is the better Promised Land. He is God, and He is man.
Now we come to the passage from Hebrews chapter 4 that we have just read together. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the son of God, let us hold fast our confession. We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect was tempted as we are, yet without sin.” The High Priests of Israel were that class of Israelite men descended from Aaron’s line who were tasked with the responsibility of representing Israel before God, and offering sacrifices to atone for and cover over the sins of Israel. The glitch in that system is that the Priests of Israel were themselves sinful human beings, who also needed to make sacrifices to atone for their own sins in addition to those of God’s people. Theirs was a life of constant sacrificing. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, to atone for the sins of God’s people, and for themselves. Another way of saying this, and this will not be shocking news for anyone with any history in the church, Priests are not perfect. Priests are not sinless. Even Priests need a Priest.
Jesus is nothing like this kind of Priest. What kind of Priest is He? Unlike the Priests of Israel, and all of the Priests you or I have ever known, Jesus Christ is a sinless Priest. Faced with the same temptations as human beings, Jesus Christ remained sinless, so that he himself could be perfect, spotless, offering to atone for sins; and the Priest who sacrifices himself as the perfect offering. Jesus is the victim, and the Priest.
Early critics of Christian teaching reflected on the idea of Jesus’ sinlessness and asked, “so what? If Jesus was a God like you say he was, was it even possible for him to sin? And if it was not possible for Jesus to sin, then what is the big deal?” This is a really good question. If you struggle with a temptation to abuse alcohol, going to a pub will be a trial, it will be a test, it could be awful; but if you do not, it is a deeply pleasant time.
If you were wondering why our Psalm, Psalm 91, was included this morning in our lectionary, it is because this is a passage of Scripture that Satan quotes directly when he is tempting Jesus in the wilderness. He tells Jesus to jump off of the Temple, for “he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.” It is helpful to recall this scene of temptation when we think of what it was like for Jesus to be tempted, as the God-Man, the fully God and fully Human one.
Jesus’ experience of temptation in the wilderness is representative of all temptations that we all face, because it resembles the temptation of Adam and Eve, the temptations of Israel, and the temptation we all face to turn away from God in response to the presence of evil in the world. Pope Benedict XVI wrote an incredible series of commentaries on the life of Jesus called Jesus of Nazareth, and in the section about Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, he has this to say. “The letter to the Hebrews is particularly eloquent in stressing that Jesus’ mission, the solidarity with all of us that he manifested… includes exposure to the risks and perils of human existence.” His entire life, but his temptation in particular was, “A descent into the perils besetting mankind, for there is no other way to lift up fallen humanity.”
Our reading from that glorious, moving 53rd chapter of the Prophet Isaiah, which Christians have always connected with Jesus Christ, sums up this descent into our perils marvelously. “Surely, he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” We do not need to believe that Jesus literally faced every identical sin that we as individual human beings face; but that his experience of temptation to sin was representative of humanity’s temptations. He took our sin upon Himself, yet was without sin. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned– everyone– to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” He is the God-Man, in solidarity with us sinners.
“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” I hope we all recognized this image of the “throne of grace,” from our Eucharistic liturgy and the traditional forms for the introduction to the confession of sin. With the throne of grace, we are presented with another image and symbol from Israel’s life with God, the place where God rules and governs all things. This is the same throne room of God where Daniel sees a human being in the strange position of ruler over all things. This is the same place where the Prophets too are brought by their visions associated with their calling. It is not a physical place, for it is outside of space and outside of time. It is where God rules.
And there is a human being sitting in the room where God rules, on the throne where God rules, because Jesus Christ brought humanity there with Him. He knows what it is like to suffer. He knows what it is like to be tempted as we are. He is not unsympathetic to our plight, but in a profound act of sympathy and love, has made our plight, our suffering, our misery, our sin, all His own. We do not need to worry that God will not hear us, because Jesus is fully human, and fully God. In Jesus Christ, God has taken on the plight of humanity. He has gone all the way from the grave to glory on our behalf, all as a human being like us. And what does that mean? We too are present in this place, for we are united in Christ, and the bonds that bind us together are the grace of God. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
The Anglican Bishop and Scholar N.T. Wright was a campus minister for 10 years between finishing seminary, and beginning his doctoral work on the Apostle Paul. During his ministry, he would get to know students who would eventually tell him how ridiculous they thought belief in God was, and he would listen, listen, listen. He then invited students for a pint, coffee, lunch, and he would tell them, “I want you to tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” And at the end of those conversations he would say, “you know what, I don’t believe in that God either. Can I tell you about the God I do believe in?”
God’s good news for us in the Epistle to the Hebrews this morning is that the God we believe in by our nature, the God who is just a projection of our best or worse self, our best or worst memories; the God who is too far away to care about us, or so much like us that he cannot save us, this God does not exist either. Instead, we have the God incarnate, man divine, Jesus Christ, thanks be to God. So when our Priests let us down or hurt us, when our Bishops frustrate us and distract from the sound, wholesome teachings of the historic Christian faith, when the leaders of our nations anger us and demand our allegiances which belong only to God, whenever human nature rears its ugly head; these times are not a call to look more deeply into ourselves, what we can accomplish, what we can do by our power or wisdom; but these are times to look only at Jesus Christ.
We need a Perfect Priest, a perfect Bishop, we have that in Jesus Christ. We need a perfect King. We have one in Jesus Christ. We need a perfect human to advocate for us before God, and we have precisely that in Jesus Christ. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Amen.