October 10, 2015 by jmar198013
Here’s the manuscript for the sermon I’ll be preaching tomorrow at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA.
Act 1: Jesus is the Word of God
Our New Testament lesson today—Hebrews 4.12-16—began: God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow.
Back when I was in Sunday School, we were more or less taught to substitute the Bible for God’s word in this passage: The Bible is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword.
The Bible penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow.
The problem is, if you start digging around, the Bible never calls itself the Word of God. Throughout the Old Testament, you run across phrases like the words of God; or the word of the LORD. But they’re not referring to words that have been written down. They’re referring to the act of God speaking to the prophets, giving them a message to pass along. For instance, when the prophet Samuel was a boy, God spoke to him in the middle of the night, but he didn’t understand what was happening. 1 Samuel 3.7 says this was because Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The author of 1 Samuel is saying that God had never spoken to Samuel before.
God’s word is the act of God speaking. It is the word of God whether it is written down or not.
So when Hebrews says that God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, she doesn’t mean the Bible.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Bible, I believe the Bible, I’m grateful that we have the Bible.
It’s just the Bible isn’t what Hebrews had in mind in this passage. To understand what—or better, whom—Hebrews means by God’s living and active word, we have to rewind to the beginning of the letter.
In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. In these final days, though, he spoke to us through a Son (Heb. 1.1-2).
For Hebrews, the living and active Word of God is Jesus the Son. Jesus, the Word through whom God created the world, and whom God has made the heir of everything (Heb. 1.2).
Jesus, who is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being, and who maintains everything with his powerful message (Heb. 1.3).
Jesus, who suffered death so that he could taste death for everyone (Heb. 2.9)
Jesus, who now sits at the right side of the highest majesty (Heb. 1.3).
Jesus, who is now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of his death (Heb. 2.9).
That’s who Hebrews means when she talks about God’s living and active Word.
Jesus—the Son through whom God has spoken. Jesus, the Word-made-flesh. Jesus, who tasted death, but is now alive with God. Jesus, through whom conversation between God and humans has been renewed.
So let’s try hearing this with Jesus the Son as God’s Word, not the Bible.
Jesus the Son is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. He penetrates to the point that he separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. He’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. No creature is hidden from him, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.
Jesus is the penetrating Word of God. Jesus probes the borders of spirit and soul. Everything is naked and exposed in his eyes, and nothing and no one is hidden from him. He is the Word that judges the thoughts and intentions of every heart.
Jesus is the judge; not the Bible. The Bible leads us to God’s living and active Word, Jesus. But Jesus is the Word God wants us to hear, to experience, to know. Jesus is the basis of all conversation between God and us.
Act 2: Soul, Spirit, Joints, and Marrow
Hebrews says that Jesus is the judge of the heart’s thoughts and intentions, and the one to whom we have to give an answer. And that’s got to be the best news ever.
I mean, think about the Jesus we meet in the Gospels.
After all, it was Jesus who said, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Matt. 5.7). And we know from further reading that mercy overrules judgment (James 2.13).
The Pharisees and legal experts are always picking on his friends. It seems like every time Jesus wants to just sit down and enjoy a quiet meal with his disciples, these killjoys come in and cause a ruckus. And typically, it’s because the disciples aren’t living by their interpretation of the Bible. Jesus always stands up for his disciples. Always.
We have heard Jesus claim the hungry, thirsty, sick, and prisoners as these brothers and sisters of mine. He lived and died in solidarity with the poor, the outcasts, the sinners. The people who had made every mistake you can make. And he said that whatever kindness we show them, you have done it for me (Matt. 25.40).
We have seen Jesus stand up to the system for taking advantage of widows. In Mark 12.38-40, Jesus tells his disciples: Watch out for the legal experts . . . They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.
Again, a commentary from Jesus’ brother James is appropriate here: There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy (James 2.13).
In John 8, the Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman they have caught in adultery. They demand—as the the Bible teaches—that she be executed. Executed the biblical way, too. Crush her with stones until she dies. Jesus replies: Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone (John 8.7).
So you take all that—a Jesus who stands up for the weak. Who knows life is messy. A Jesus who claims the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the prisoner as family. A Jesus who stands up to bullies. A Jesus who preaches mercy, and then shows us what mercy looks like in his life. In his flesh and blood.
And that Jesus is God’s living and active Word. He is the Word who judges the heart’s thoughts and intentions. He is the Word before whom everything is naked and exposed. He is the Word to whom we have to give an answer.
What is God telling us through this Word? According to Hebrews, God wants us to know that we don’t have a high priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses, but instead one who was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin.
Anyway, here’s what Hebrews is getting at. Jesus is the penetrating Word of God because has penetrated the human experience of joints and marrow and soul and spirit.
He is able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions, because he knows what it means to have a human heart. He has known conflict and temptation and grief and rage and helplessness and vulnerability and suffering. He’s been inside our head. He’s seen the world through our eyes.
And when God sees the world through human eyes, God gets a different perspective.
So Hebrews wants us to know that the eyes to which everything is naked and exposed are sympathetic eyes. She wants us to know that the one to whom we have to give an answer was also tempted in every way that we are.
The living and active Word of God isn’t an impersonal standard. It isn’t words on a page. He is the crucified-and-resurrected Son, Jesus.
And through Jesus, God continues to speak to us. Jesus initiates and sustains an active conversation between God and us. A live conversation.
This live conversation is possible because Jesus—God’s living and active Word—is our great high priest who passed through the heavens. In Jesus, God penetrated the human experience. Jesus was not just God in a human costume. The living and active Word of God became human. Now Jesus the Son—the crucified and resurrected Word, the Human One—has penetrated the veil of heaven. He is the great high priest for all humanity.
Through Jesus, God has learned what it means to be weak and vulnerable and tempted. God has taken our human suffering onto himself, into his own life.
That changes everything. Jesus—our great high priest who has passed through the heavens—has opened up an entirely new conversation between humans and God. One in which God has learned to see through human eyes, to intimately know human limitations, and to experience human suffering in body and soul.
Act 3: God speaks reconciliation through Jesus
I suspect that the idea of Jesus being our high priest isn’t particularly compelling for a lot of us. We are far removed from the world of priests and altars and blood sacrifices. And frankly, we’re probably thankful for that. We can leave those primitive ways of connecting with God to the ancients. We are probably glad that we use bread and wine now, instead of actual flesh and blood, to celebrate our reconciliation to God.
And yet, if we can’t find a way into that world—if we can’t find a way to penetrate history with our minds—we’re not going to grasp what Hebrews is trying to tell us. In fact, she spends the rest of her letter unfolding the metaphor of Jesus as a high priest.
In the Old Testament, the function of the priest was to be the go-between for God and Israel. The priest was a representative human. He represented God for the people. And he represented the people before God.
One aspect of the work of the priest was to offer sacrifices for the people. The high priest represented the whole people of Israel. And probably the most important work of the high priest was overseeing Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement, or Reconciliation. You can read all about this is Leviticus 16. But I’ll summarize it here.
Once a year, there’s this day of reunification, of reconciliation, of bringing God and the people back to a relationship of “at-one-ment.” You have this renewing of peaceful conversation between God and humans.
To accomplish this, the high priest oversees a purification ritual involving two goats. The goats are chosen by lot. The first goat is “the Lord’s.” It’s the lamb of God, the lamb for God. And this lamb is slaughtered, and its blood is sprinkled and smeared on the altar.
Here’s where people get confused. They assume that the innocent animal is being punished for Israel’s sins. But that’s not the logic of the ritual. The emphasis is not on killing the animal, but on getting its blood to smear on the altar. So what’s the symbolism of the blood? You find that out in the next chapter. Lev. 17.11 says: A creature’s life is in the blood. I have provided you the blood to make reconciliation for your lives on the altar, because the blood reconciles by means of the life.
So what the high priest is doing when he smears the goat’s blood on the altar is offering his own life in obedience to and communion with God. And since he is the representative for all the people, he’s doing this for all the people. What’s going on in that sacrifice is the nation of Israel offering themselves—their lives—to God. It’s reconciliation. It’s reunion. It’s the restoration, the reaffirmation, of their relationship with God. And every year they do this so the conversation between God and his people can continue.
Then there’s the second goat. The scapegoat. What happens with the scapegoat? According to Lev. 16.21-22, the high priest will press both his hands on its head and confess over it all the Israelites’ offenses and all their rebellious sins, as well as all their other sins, putting all these on the goat’s head . . . The goat will carry on itself all their offenses to a desolate region. So the scapegoat signifies God forgiving the sins of his people, who have given their lives to him. That’s interesting, because it seems to indicate that having your sins forgiven is a blessing that comes from offering your life to God. Not a precondition that’s necessary to establish a relationship with God.
Anyway, when Hebrews says that Jesus is the great high priest who passed through the heavens; and that he can sympathize with us in our human weaknesses, she means that represents humanity in God’s presence. And that he represents God before humanity. He has made the sacrifice that reconciles us to God. That re-establishes conversation and communion between humans and God. And that purifies is from our sins.
So when we are baptized into Christ, one thing that means is that we are baptized into this sacrifice he has made. He has made it possible for us to offer our lives in obedient communion to God. He has made the sacrifice that carries away our sins. So that our lives can be purified sanctuaries for God’s presence.
We’ll examine how that works more in a later sermon, but that’s basically what Hebrews is saying when she calls Jesus our great high priest.
She means that since Jesus has made the sacrifice that reconciles us to God; and since he now dwells at God’s right hand, we are able to draw near to the throne of favor with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.
Hebrews is saying: No matter where we are, or what’s going on, or how desperate and God-forsaken our lives seem, we can always come to God through our great high priest, Jesus. The conversation between God and humans is always fresh and adapting and open and responsive because Jesus is God’s living and active Word.
So in our New Testament lesson today, we learned that Jesus is God’s living and active Word. And that Jesus is our great high priest. What I want us all to leave knowing, even if you remember nothing else about this sermon, is that it is God who provided the means of our reconciliation with him. And it is God who has re-opened conversation with us by a living and active Word. This is a God who pursues reconciliation and relationship with us, even though it costs him. Even though it hurts. And that’s exactly the kind of God we need if we’re going to be able to draw near with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace.
And that’s the God who speaks to us through Jesus.