A sermon by Jay Haug at Nashota House, March 11, 2015
Heavenly Father, behold your children for whom you sent your Son. Heal us by your word, both now and fully, finally and forever at the last day, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
My text this morning comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews Chapter 2, verses 14-18
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them,[k] fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
There are some phrases here we ought to let penetrate our hearts and minds. Let’s make them personal.
Jesus shared our humanity. He had to be made like us, fully human in every way. Because Jesus suffered and was tempted, he is able to help us who are tempted.
We preachers love to talk about the scandal of Christianity. First, there is the scandal of divinity. The world rejected Jesus’s claim to divinity because as a man “he made himself equal with God.” Then there is the scandal of particularity. The Johannine thunderbolt, right there in the middle of Matthew’s gospel. “No one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Mt. 11:27b.) The syncretists and relativists are pulling out the smelling salts over that one.
But there is one more scandal and it is far more personal and potentially threatening than the first two. It is the one most often hidden in plain sight in the church. We, God’s people, are scandalized by Jesus’s humanity, the wild and uproarious truth that God knows all about us, from the inside out because he has both lived our life, yours and mine, and as Hebrews tells us, He lives today knowing “the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts.” (Hebrews 4:12)
Ron J. in his book Impossible Joy writes,
“I am known. You are known. Fully and completely. From the inside out. By the one who has actually lived in our sinful flesh and knows it from the inside out. I’ve always wanted to be known for who I really was. Haven’t you? “
But the Christian Pharisee in me, attempting to hide what is really inside myself will immediately object. He will say, “But Jesus did not sin. He was holy.” To which I reply, echoing Hebrews, “Who do you think feels and knows the power of sin better? The person who yields most of the time? Or the person who fights to the end and never yields? Jesus knows much more about sin’s power than we ever will. Moses the sinner came down from the mountain after forty days with God and his face shone. Jesus the righteous one spent forty days in the wilderness, met the devil, and was starving and vulnerable.
So why do we resist the gospel message that Jesus took on flesh?… even though we know it was motivated by love and grace? For one reason. Pain. The pain of being known and the pain of needing to surrender to another to make us whole.
Ron J. goes on to say. “Being known for who we really are brings pain. To be able to enter into the Sabbath rest of God, we must be open with the One who knows us and wants to take us to himself.” When Jesus exposed Peter’s fishing technique by loading the boat with fish, Peter said “Go away from me O Lord for I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8) If Jesus exposed Peter’s fishing ineptitude, imagine what else he might find when poking around in Peter’s soul. Knowledge brings exposure and exposure pain. This is why so many of us fight against being known.
And so we run away. Like Adam and Eve in the garden after the fall. Like the prodigal son who can’t wait for his inheritance and is impatient to sow his wild oats. Sometimes when my wife walks through the door in the evening, I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to speak about my negative emotions or listen to hers. I just want to avoid the pain of it all. I want to avoid even the slightest pain sometimes. When I was in seminary, I had a life-controlling secret that occupied a considerable amount of my time and energy. I believed I had no one to share it with and as a result I became walled off from intimacy with God and people. I had a secret habit of consuming pornography. In seeking to avoid pain, my lifestyle itself became a deep source of pain. Such is the pattern of addiction.
The writer of Hebrews makes reference to the sources of that pain. He calls it “being held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:15) For me this “death fear” was being unable to surrender the control I had established with my habit. Trading in God’s presence and Jesus’s provision, I had instead turned to a reliable little god that worked to give me temporary relief. Funny thing about these little gods. Like Achan stealing the “devoted things,” (Joshua 7:1) they have a way of taking over and infecting everything else. In my case, the “death experience” of trusting God could be put off in my mind in favor of temporary relief. Death, the ultimate powerlessness, could be postponed just for a few hours in favor of the short-term fix.
What was lost? Intimacy with him, waiting for his purposes and plans to be worked out as was best for me, in his time. Mental clarity, transparency, integrity, patience, self-giving, health and wholeness. All these were lost through the door of idolatry.
Tim Keller in his book Counterfeit Gods writes this about Jacob longing after Rachel. “Then he beheld the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and he must have said to himself, “ If I had her, finally something would be right in my miserable life. If I had her, it would fix things.” That is the addictive voice. The voice that says, “If I can orchestrate things, I can fix myself apart from Jesus.” How many of us addicted to lust have said, “If I can just get married and have her, I will be fixed,” never imagining that she might not want to jump into our addictive game. It may be alcohol or drugs, ambition, money or sex or even food.” But the spirit of god-like control is the same. We fear the powerlessness, the waiting, so we take matters into our own hands. “Who through fear of death, were subject to lifelong bondage.”
How do we get out of this trap? How in the world do we find freedom? Into this fearful den of bondage comes Jesus. And the first thing we hear him say is, “I know.” I hear him say that all the time to me now. I know what it is like to walk through what you are experiencing right now. Hebrews tells us, He was tempted in every way we are…” Here is a partial list of Jesus’s emotional life on earth. He was “ distressed, troubled, hungry, tired, tempted, felt compassion and power going forth from him. He was angry, indignant, consumed with zeal, sorrowful, deeply moved, grieved, exasperated, wept, in agony, surprised and amazed. He rejoiced, greatly desired, loved, fell to the ground, sweated great drops of blood, was hungry and alone, rejected, beaten, flogged and crucified. Whatever you walk through, he knows. Whatever you are walking through right now, he knows. If he was “tempted in every way as we are,” then he knows the pull of sexual attraction of all kinds, drinking too much, power, fame, attention and all the things that drive us and captivate us. He knows. You and I are not alone.
The second truth is that Jesus desires intimacy with us right in the middle of our temptations. Right in the heat of the moment. He doesn’t ask us to clean up our act before we come to him. He doesn’t flee when we are tempted, but instead desires to be our sin-bearer in the moment it occurs, to take it away right then, right now, if we will only surrender it up to him. At the very time I want to push him away by handling things myself, he is continually saying. “This is why I came. I want to be with you in this, just as much as I was on the cross. I will take it if you will give it to me. It’s your call.”
The book of James proclaims an astounding truth. “Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?” The Greek word for compassion is “splanchnon.” It literally means “to have the intestines yearn.” Jesus yearns for you because he loves you and wants to share intimacy with you, right in the middle of trouble. If fact, this is where you can have the most intimacy with him, because he is the sin-bearer. Why would we seek to deal with it ourselves when he will not only take it away but our intimacy with him will increase by doing this habitually.
Sharon Hersh in her book The Last Addiction writes, “It is impossible to exaggerate the desperation of the prodigal son as he ends up homeless and penniless, slopping hogs and eating scraps from the pigpen. It is equally impossible to exaggerate the father’s desperation, his daily watch and wait for his wayward son. The terrible tension is finally broken. Jesus describes their reunion. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and had compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” You see Jesus is yearning for us with deep compassion. He leaves the 99 desperately searching for the one lost sheep whom he loves…you and me. Once we see this, nothing will do but a surrender to his embrace. All our idols will fall away.
This is impossible joy, for two reasons. It is first of all surprising. In reading the story of the prodigal son, it is doubtful the prodigal expected the embrace of his father. But the story is for us. It is we who are surprised. Every one of us has born the brunt and sting of judgment. But to expect judgment or having to perform or earn approval and instead receiving a loving heart-felt embrace is often beyond words. It is always surprising and always life-changing.
The Rev. John Zahl tells this true story. A few years ago, just before Christmas, I received a very generous gift certificate to a local, high-end department store. The man who gave it to me was a member of my congregation and also the owner of the store.
About two weeks after I received it, I went into his store to make use of it. He met me at the entrance. I proceeded to select a lovely sports coat, one which I could wear in both professional and social settings, plus a nice dress shirt and some fancy loafers. I made sure to look at each of the price tags (on the sly) as he showed me different items that he thought would suit me well. In my head, I spent much of the time doing some calculations. My plan was to overshoot the gift certificate enough to be able to then put a bit of cash back into the store’s register, thereby showing my gratitude for the generosity I had been shown and also displaying my support for his shop.
When I got to the register, he proceeded to tally up the total. I put my wallet on the counter and got my card out of my wallet. But as he turned to face me, he placed the gift-certificate down in front of me, and said, “It looks like you’ve only spent a little more than half of your credit with us.” I was mortified. In that moment I realized that he had only been charging me half of the ticket price. It meant that I was still in his debt, and the feeling accompanying this realization was quite uncomfortable.
I knew what had to be done and explained the entire situation to my wife upon my return home. She agreed to accompany me back to the store in a few weeks’ time, where she would “help” me spend the rest of the credit by finding some new clothes for herself. We agreed that we would spend well over the remaining amount, in a further attempt to show our appreciation.
So we did just that. After a little shopping, we approached the counter as a unified front, and with a veritable armload of wears we wished to acquire. I handed our friend the gift certificate. He took the gift certificate in hand and then began entering the purchases into the register, bagging them up one by one as he went along.
Finally, when the bags were full, and everything had been rung up, he turned to us with a look of seeming amazement on his face. “You’re not going to believe this,” He said, “but I’ve rung everything up, and the total comes to exactly zero.” We were horrified, and protested a bit. “That can’t be right. The total should be well above what was left of our store credit, etc…”
Then he got serious, and he said, “I don’t think you understand how this gift certificate works. No matter what you throw at it, the total will always continue to come up reading zero.” It was the first moment we understood the nature of the situation, which, for us, had to be spelled out. In our attempts to buy our way out of the debt, we had completely missed out on seeing the value of the credit, of the gift, which this generous man took such pleasure in bestowing upon us. There were no words.
The second reason this is impossible joy is that surrender works every time. And I mean it..every time. Every time I meet the risen Jesus in the midst of my temptation, and am willing to surrender it and do, he takes it and bears it away. Every time. Many of us face life-controlling issues. I cannot tell you when your moment of surrender will come. Perhaps it already has come. All I can tell you is that Jesus will be there for you without measure when it happens. In fact, he will be there before, during and after.
A disciple once asked a rebbe, “Why does Torah say to place these words upon our hearts? Why does it not say instead to place them in our hearts?”
The rebbe answered, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.” (The Last Addiction, page 161)
May I suggest to you in your Lenten meditations that this is why he came, that this is why he entered fully into our lives.…to set us free in the moment, again and again and again. The words fall in. Surrender happens. May your intimacy with him be your highest joy and may his name be praised for taking every pain to provide it. Amen.