Let Suffering Speak

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.

July 28, 2019

Hebrews 4:14–5:10

One of our church book groups just read Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. We had a good discussion Thursday night about it. And if you haven’t read it, we would all encourage you to do so, but you have to get your own copy, because none of us want to give up our copies. 

The book prompted a good discussion on how we interpret Scripture. And as I was preparing for this sermon from Hebrews, it occurred to me that the author of Hebrews is also interpreting scripture in this passage, to talk about Jesus. The authors of all the letters in the New Testament did not know they were writing Scripture. They were writing letters to actual communities, helping them interpret the life of Jesus through Scripture.
Using imagery from scripture that is familiar to the community is one way they interpret Jesus. Using actual quotes from scripture is another. In this passage, Jesus is viewed through both Psalm 2 and Psalm 110. There is imagery here to connect him to Genesis 14 and a story about Abraham and a King named Melchizedek., which most likely also made people think of King David, who later ruled the same area as did Melchizedek., and needed some support himself to support having his palace in Jerusalem.

We don’t tie our faith to geography the same way King David would have, or the same way the author of Hebrews needed to, so Melchizedek. may just be a word we don’t understand but like saying

Melchizedek.
Melchizedek.
Melchizedek.

Evans warns her readers:

“The truth is, you can bend Scripture to say just about anything you want it to say. You can bend it until it breaks. For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We’re all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it. So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: are we reading with the prejudice of love, with Christ as our model, or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? Are we seeking to enslave or liberate, burden or set free?”

Have you thought much about how you read Scripture? About what you bring to it when you open the book?

How does the author of Hebrews read scripture to interpret Jesus?

They make clear that Jesus is not just a guy who showed up one day. He is connected to Abraham, to King David, a fulfillment of the stories of faith they already know. The psalms prepared us for him. Jesus is a high priest, sent from God, but not a high priest who hides in the pulpit or behind the altar.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Jesus is a high priest, accessible to us all.

We can all approach the throne of grace in our time of need, with boldness. The author of Hebrews makes clear that Jesus is divine, and also that Jesus is human, approachable, and knows what it is like to live lives as we do.

And that is a scandalous interpretation of scripture to many.

As Elton Trueblood, a 20th century conservative Quaker, author, pastor put it, “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.” 

What does it mean to think that God is like Jesus, that God is aware of our joys, our suffering, our trials?

Hebrews describes Jesus as crying out with loud cries and tears, being heard by God and saved, being obedient, being tested as we are. This is a different depiction of divine behavior than other cultures of the day would have used. Honestly, it’s different than many American Christians would use today. Jesus finds perfection through suffering and through experiencing life as we do.

In her book, Evans writes:

“Dignified or not, believable or not, ours is a God perpetually on bended knee, doing everything it takes to convince stubborn and petulant children that they are seen and loved. It is no more beneath God to speak to us using poetry, proverb, letters, and legend than it is for a mother to read storybooks to her daughter at bedtime. This is who God is. This is what God does.”

The author of Hebrews doesn’t speak of Jesus as a bedtime story reader, but today, if they were writing, perhaps they would. We are given a portrayal of God, as seen through the person of Jesus, as an intimately involved God, a God who meets us at whatever level we’re at, hears our cries, and responds to save.

This past weekend, some people hosted dinners for 8 in their homes. I went to one last night, which was great. Not everybody knew everyone before the evening started, but we had some great conversations and delicious food.

Listening to the conversation, I thought of this passage from Hebrews, because at the table, people shared of their struggles, and the rest of the table listened to the stories. We didn’t change any of the situation or reality that people were in. We didn’t offer advice. We just heard what they shared. And I was reminded of both the power and the importance of taking time to gather and be together, to listen, to be support for each other.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

At the table last night, we may not have exactly been the throne of grace for each other, offering help in time of need, but at the end of the evening, I think we all felt more connected, a little less alone.

20th century German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote, “to let suffering speak is the condition of all truth”. The God described in Hebrews is one who lets those who suffer speak.

Are we listening to the suffering being spoken today? It can be easy to turn off the news, because it’s so heartbreaking and often infuriating. It can be easy to think, “that’s not happening here, to me. I don’t have any responsibility for what’s going on to other people, somewhere else”.

I suppose God could have had a similar philosophy about us, here on earth. “Yeah, I created them, but I didn’t tell them to do that to each other. What am I supposed to do, pay attention to all their suffering? How could I make a difference when they keep hurting each other and themselves? I don’t have time for that.”

That’s not, of course, what God said in the face of human suffering. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

God, in Jesus, took on human form and human suffering.

God chose, forever and always, to be the God who hears the cries of the people.

God, in Jesus, shows us how to listen to the cries of others too.

I saw this prayer yesterday, written by Laura Jean Truman, that may help us keep on listening to the truth spoken in suffering.

“Keep my anger from becoming meanness.
Keep my sorrow from collapsing into self pity.
Keep my heart soft enough to keep breaking.
Keep my anger turned toward justice, not cruelty.
Remind me that all of this, every bit of it, is for love.
Keep me fiercely kind.
Amen.”

Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. And may we help others who need our assistance on their journey to the throne of grace too. Amen.

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