St Thomas’, Glen Carbon—Hebrews 5:1-10
One does not need to monitor the news media for very long before hearing about death and destruction on a massive scale: volcanoes erupting now in Indonesia, the season for tornadoes and floods in the midwest shortly upon us, a potential earthquake at any moment in many parts of the world. The succession of violent attacks on groups of innocent people boggle the mind. Within the living memory of many, some 20 million people perished under the death machine of the Nazis. And if it weren’t for Hitler, the names of Josef Stalin and Pol Pot would by competing for top honors in the genocide category. And all this just within the last seventy years!
But if you’d rather study history than journalism, there’s plenty there as well. Names like Attila the Hun and Ivan the Terrible and the Vikings come to mind. And, of course, the bubonic plague wiped out fully ten percent of the population of Europe in its successive attacks during the late Middle Ages. The inescapable reality of human experience is that pain and suffering and cruelty are all around us.
And our biggest fear—if we were to stop and take a spiritual inventory of ourselves—our biggest fear is that it will all turn out to be meaningless, that our own suffering and the suffering of everyone else in the world will, in the end, turn out to be arbitrary, random, devoid of any redemptive purpose. Life is just—as it has been said about the Dark Ages—life is just “nasty, brutish, and short.” We suffer until we die, then we’re forgotten, lost in a sea of statistics that future generations of school children will read about—no names, just lots of big numbers.
And so we feel ourselves to be very much alone in this “vale of tears.” Death is the ultimate symbol of alienation and loneliness, because we do it all by ourselves. It is the one trip that we don’t get to have company on. We each have to face it individually, alone. But long before we get to that point, that point of death, there is plenty of opportunity to feel isolated, to feel abandoned. Even when we are surrounded by other people, even in the middle of close family and community relationships, we can easily feel cut off, disconnected, like our own skin is a stone wall that prevents us from truly sharing and participating in the lives of others, that keeps us from knowing and being known, that keeps us from understanding and being understood. How frustrating this barrier is. First it makes us angry and then it makes us crazy. It blocks intimacy and communion between human hearts and human souls.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the densest and most technical parts of the entire Bible. It can be really tough going. But today, it scratches us where we itch. It speaks directly to our pain. The author is trying to set Jesus up as the supreme example of a high priest, and in order to make his case, he starts by talking about the priesthood of the Old Covenant, the priesthood established by God for the people of Israel at the time of Moses, some twelve to fifteen hundred years before Christ. The job of an Israelite priest was to offer animal sacrifices as an atonement before God for the sins of the people, to shed the blood of the innocent on behalf of the guilty. A priest had to be chosen by God, and the usual sign of being chosen by God was pretty simple—being born in the the tribe of Levi. A priest also had to be one of the people, “chosen from among men,” as the author of Hebrews puts it.
The point, of course, is that Jesus meets both qualifications. He was not a Levite, but he was chosen by God, designated by a voice from Heaven when he came up from the waters of the Jordan River after being baptized: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And he was also one of the people, “chosen from among men,” as is illustrated by his offering up to God “prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears,” particularly in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion. Jesus is therefore a model for our journey through the human experience of suffering and loneliness and alienation and, ultimately, death. He is with us in and through our confusion and depression and the temptation to abandon hope. When we lift up our own agonizing prayer before the Father, prayer to be delivered from the distress that we are in, prayer to be allowed to see and grasp what it all means, prayer that the suffering of those who lost loved ones to the plague a thousand years ago, or to a school shooting last month—prayer that their suffering will not be in vain, that it will be redeemed—when we lift up our own agonizing prayer before the Father, Jesus’s own agonizing prayer is joined with it. Our faithful high priest, “who was in every tempted as we are, yet did not sin,” joins his prayers with ours.
Jesus, our High Priest, also gives us an example. He faced temptation and suffering at least as intense as that which you and I face, and he did it with courage and faith and obedience. Of course, we don’t have it within us to copy his example perfectly by the force of sheer willpower, but when we cooperate with the grace Jesus himself supplies—grace made available to us in, among other places, the sacrament of Holy Communion—when we cooperate with grace, we can become more and more like Jesus, and participate in his courage, his faith, and his obedience.
As our high priest, Jesus blazes the trail through the traps and dangers and snares of the human experience. Wherever we go, Jesus has already been there. He has marked the road, straightened out a few curves and smoothed out a few rough spots. He has posted warning signs telling us about dangerous places. And if we do have a wreck, or break down, he’s installed call boxes within convenient walking distance of wherever we might find ourselves in trouble.
But, most of all, Jesus our great High Priest has redeemed our suffering by his own suffering, which has the additional benefit of making our suffering also redemptive for others. When things go wrong—when marriages get stressed, and sometimes get sick and die, when family relationships are strained, whether they be biological families or church families, when we are confronted with unwelcome setbacks to our health or to our finances—when things go wrong, Jesus takes that wrong and unites it with his own pain, with his own “prayers and supplications and loud cries and tears,” and thereby brings it under the covering shadow of his redemptive grace. The things that go wrong might not ever disappear this side of eternity, but in the mystery of redeeming grace, in the mercy of Jesus our great high priest, they can be transoformed into conduits of healing and life.
Let us not take lightly, or turn our back on, so great a salvation. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.