By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 17, 2021
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Hebrews 5:1–10 (ESV)
1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
The past couple of weeks we have spoken about God’s plan to restore humanity. I want us to consider this more deeply this week. We often look at scripture and the stories within scripture from a very human focused perspective, and rightfully so since humans are the ones to whom this revelation was given. We also tend to look at scripture through the lenses of our experience, and our religious traditions as well. As much as we would like to say that we are open to the context of the text, even the most devout follower so sola scriptura fails to completely pull themselves away from tradition.
I am just as guilty a anyone on that point. I love the history and traditions of the Society of Friends. It is the best expression of faith that I have come across, that is why I am a minister within this tradition. But I must admit that we do at times read things through our tradition and our preferences, just like everyone else. It is part of our human existence. We are social beings, and our societies develop cultures, and it is through those cultural constructs that we learned to understand the world around us. We look at the world from an American perspective, which is different than the perspective that the students I taught in Ukraine looked at things. We look at the world from a Christian perspective, which is different from the way other religions look at things. And we look at things from a Friends perspective which is different than the way other Christians look at things. We can even break that down further. Even states within the United States have a distinct perspective as to what American is. And Friends Churches within the same yearly meeting from different states or even across town might differ slightly because the experiences of the people within have slightly different cultures.
I mention this because Hebrews is a difficult book. There are cultural, aspects to it that we might miss if we do not understand the context not only of words but also the people. And we even see glimpses of different understandings of things from within Jewish traditions. Contrary to what we might think the Hebrew religion was not, and still is not as unified under one understanding. There is a joke that if you ask a group of four rabbis a question you will get five answers. I do not think that is something unique to them as a people group, it just proves the point that all people have a variety of opinions and perspectives. Even within the teachings of the Gospel we see three if not four different perspectives of faith within first century Jewish practices. They are all Jewish but just a bit different. United on some aspects, but willing to argue endlessly on others.
The point of this general letter is to provide an apologetic, a theological defense to the supremacy of Jesus, over the traditions of old. The letter was written during that transitional period of Church history where there was a debate over identity. Are we Christian, or are we Jewish? Can you be both? Can you be one without the other? We might not fully grasp this struggle. For most of us, we have not had to struggle with the concept of identity. We are just what we are. I was born into the Friends Church, for me this expression of faith is not strange but natural. I cannot look at another expression of faith without comparing it to what I already know. Many of you were not born into this meeting, you came here from somewhere or something else. Some of you remember quite well what that experience was like. Some of you might have struggled with our expression, some might still struggle, while others of us may have just seamlessly melded into our community of faith so easily that it might be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment this became your home.
I want us to think about that struggle. The fact that you are still here means that there is some reason you stayed. If you are new, I encourage you to ask questions and to seek answers because that is part of the journey of faith. A church is more than a place to worship, it is part of who you are. It is the place you come to draw close to God, and the group of people you are called to share ministry through. It is like a marriage in many ways. And like every relationship, the best relationships require a great deal of work.
Life in many ways is a series of struggles. Some might say that life requires struggle for us to truly live. It is through suffering and struggles that we gain the strength to endure. In the early 1990’s there was a scientific ecological experiment called Biosphere 2. They named it that because they believed Biosphere 1 was the earth, and because the scientists involved believed we were doing harm to the planet they wanted to create an environment that would be self-contained and supporting. So, this group of scientists built a facility that would seal itself completely off from the rest of the world. And those involved in the study would live completely eating only what was in this environment. They quickly faced struggles that they never imagined. The oxygen levels within the sphere began to drop, and soon the scientists were required to pump more breathable air into the facility. Then something strange happened. We are all told that the rainforests are the lungs of the earth. That the Amazon Forest is supplying the world with breathable air. So, they planted rainforest trees. Only to find that the trees would fall over before they even matured. Through this experiment we learned that the oceans are much more important to the ecosystem than the forests, but we also learned that struggle is important to survival.
The biosphere experiment showed us that the tree needs to struggle against the wind so that it can grow to bear stresses of life. If a tree grows without the forces of wind pushing on it, it will not have the strength to handle maturity. We need struggle to survive.
We need struggle to survive. We do not like hearing this do we. I think that I could do without a little stress. I would love to be able to live life without some of the things that cause stress in my life. But the truth is we would not be who we are without those struggles. Everything we face in our lives allow us to become the people we are. We endured the struggles and now we can face tomorrow, even though we may not believe we can.
Even our faith needs struggle. The church at the time of the writing of Hebrews faced great struggle. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the Messiah was going to usher in the kingdom. But as time went on and the kingdom as they expected did not manifest around them, they began to reconsider what they believed. There was a movement that we often see within the letters, urging the Church to go back to the traditions of the first century Jewish faith. They wanted them to come back to the temple, to follow the law, and to offer sacrifices again. If you grew up in that tradition, it would be easy for you to look back on that life and lifestyle with nostalgia. You knew where you stood. You knew what was expected of you. It was easier, than the stress you now face. They did face stress. The church, face persecution by both Jews and Gentiles. They faced struggles because the church often contradicts the wisdom of men.
This goes back to the very beginning. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that God had the responsibility to restore humanity to our rightfully created position. I want us to realize that God only had this responsibility if He wanted it. God could have chosen to just walk away and start over, but God wanted us to fulfill our purpose. The only way for us to be capable of this task is if God took the responsibility of restoration on himself.
The first books of the Old Testament speak of this covenant that God made. Our first parents were deceived. We may have acted with incomplete knowledge but all actions have consequences. We live with those consequences, and God uses that struggle to bring about better things. I once listened to a podcast by a Jewish Rabbi speaking about the sin of Adam and Eve as being a good thing. That Eve made the right choice in eating the fruit, because God knew that we needed to face struggles before we could become the people, he needed us to become. I do not know if I agree with his interpretation, but I find it interesting because we need struggle to mature. Either way the reason we struggle is because it is a consequence of that action. We now have the knowledge of good and evil, and we must muddle our way through.
God knew that this was going to be difficult so He encouraged some along the way. Scripture is filled with these people. And then he calls one man to form a nation through which God would reveal the truth through. This is the nation of Israel. God chose. God ordained. But even Abraham struggled with his life of faith. We must choose to follow because God will not force us, we must work in cooperation with God, just like the wind works with the tree.
The problem is that the fall of humanity separated us from God. We moved from life to death. That is the curse of sin. We were born infected with death; theologians call this original sin. I do not like that thought process because if the baptism of infants were to alleviate the curse of original sin then why do we still face death, even if we have faith in God. Death will still greet us one day. We have this infection of death. Death is the corruption of life. It is the cancer of life. When a body develops cancer, it means that cells have become corrupt, they no longer do what they are supposed to, instead they spread the corruption until eventually the corrupt cells overcome the healthy cells.
The deception of Adam and Eve, infected humanity with this corruption that separates us from life. Our understanding of the world around us is infected with this deceptive virus, and this affects our ability to interact with God. Atheist will often argue, if there is a God, why is their so much suffering in the world. They have a point there is a great amount of suffering. But when we look at the world through the virus of deception that is all we see. We cannot see the goodness of God because we are infected with death.
God began to teach us using illustrations we would understand. God chose a nation, and within that nation he chose a tribe, and from within that tribe he chose a family. This priesthood shows us that there is a separation, and that separation can only be bridged in a certain manner to prevent the spread of the corruption.
God appointed priest to act for humanity. This prescription was set up not to divide us even more but to teach us that our ways are not God’s ways. We cannot just do whatever we think is best and expect God to bless it, because we are corrupt people. God appointed priest. These priests could not appoint themselves. If this were allowed then humanity would have power over God, but God continued to keep that wall of separation to prove a point. When priests believed that they were entitled to certain luxuries and forgot or became careless with the rituals God prescribed to Moses, they would be quickly reminded that they are also infected with the disease of Death.
We do not often like to read the books of the law. We love Genesis and Exodus but once we enter the next books, we might decide that the scripture is too hard, and we either stop reading or we skip over to more exciting books. We skip often because the books of the law remind us of how corrupt we are. We like the approachable God, we do not like separation from God. The law shows the separation and it proves to us that we cannot approach God on our own. And neither can the priests, even though God appoints them. They must make sacrifices and offerings for themselves and others before they can approach. But these sacrifices cannot ever completely cover the void. They can only at best provide a brief glimpse through a window. Like when we wipe the fog off a window on a cool morning only to have it return moments later. We are and will always be separated from God, the sacrifice is a momentary glimmer what fades again once the smoke dissipates and the blood dries. We return to that place once again, separated from life dwelling in the corruption of death.
The writer of Hebrews speaks of the weakness of the connection the temple sacrifices provide. The priest must keep the smoke rising, the blood must be applied continuously, we must continue to stay active and work without rest or we return to that place of separation. Quarantined from God. Masked behind the veil.
The priesthood can only be temporary. Just as every effort we make is temporary at best. We cannot be good enough which is why God made it his responsibility to bridge the divide. We see this in our own relationships. The only way to repair a broken relationship is if we get involved. We each must do our part to enact restoration. God gave us the law so that we are reminded of that separation. Our ways are not his ways. But all the activities of the priests are nothing more than someone giving you flowers after an argument without changing their behavior. The flowers of apology will never completely allow the injury to heal, until there is a change of heart
We cannot just claim one day to stop, we cannot proclaim that we are free from corruption, and we cannot approach God in our own strength. God must provide the way. Just as the injured party must define the terms of reconciliation because they are the ones that are suffering the offense. Jesus was brought forth, or begotten. He was appointed to fill that role; he is the terms of reconciliation. He is the perfect priest to stand in that gap because he passed through the heavens, meaning he is of divine nature. And he was born of Mary making him the Son of Man. He knows our weaknesses and has faced our corruption for and with us.
He endured the suffering and injustice of humankind. He experienced our worst, so that we can experience God’s best. He was begotten or brought forth and appointed by God. This does not mean that he is a created being, but he chose to fulfill a role within creation. A role created for the expressed purpose to restore humanity to their place. But the terms are steep. We can only approach God through him. This is what the language of the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek means. There is much to Melchizedek, but it means that Jesus does not draw his position from the traditions of humankind but is a priest of unique roots and origin. We cannot define it only God. God made it happen, God made the role and the position and did not allow it to become a tradition of man. We cannot claim faith of our ancestor for our salvation. We cannot accomplish it by our own works. The means of our salvation is the cooperative relationship between humanity and God. It is that cooperation that is predestined by God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And we can only approach God on those terms.
The early church struggled with this concept. And we too struggle. We struggle because life is hard, and the life of faith is harder. We might start off with great hopes and walk away defeated. We might be on fire but the embers cool. We believe and we doubt. What remains? God. It is Christ who continues to believe in us. It is Christ who, while we were his enemy, appointed and embodied that role himself to restore us. It was Christ who stepped down, through, and up where we could not. And he remains. He helps us through our struggles and lifts us up when we fail. The question remains. Where is our belief and trust? Will we work with the winds of struggle to maturity and strength or will we fall?
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