Preached by Michael Cheuk, October 11, 2015
Taken from Hebrews 4:12-16
Sword drills. If you’re my age or older and you grew up Baptist, you probably know what I’m talking about. For those who don’t know, these were friendly church competitions in which students were told to “unsheathe” their swords, to “draw” them, and then “charge” to compete to see who could find a particular Bible verse the quickest. Sword drills got their name partly from our passage in Hebrews today: “For the word of God is… sharper than any double-edged sword.” We also find the “word” described as a sword in Ephesians, when we’re told to put on the full armor of God.
Christians have a long tradition of embracing this idea that the written word of God – the Bible – is a sword, a tool that can defend us and protect us. Unfortunately, some people would also contend that Christians have used the Bible as a sword – to attack, to judge, and to divide. We Christians would do well to remember this this sword is perhaps best used on ourselves.
But we would also do well to remember that in Christian thinking, the “word of God” does not always refer to the sixty-six books we call the Bible. As we look at the book of Hebrews, we find that it is not describing the written word of God, but instead it refers to the living word of God, Jesus. Last Sunday, I mentioned that the book of Hebrews can be best understood as a sermon about the superiority of Jesus Christ. Last Sunday, the Preacher began his sermon with Jesus, the superior and glorious Word of God who stoops into the muck and mess of our human condition. Today, we continue with the Preacher’s sermon. In this section, he also starts with Jesus, the active and living Word of God who penetrates into the muck and messiness of our human condition to expose and judge the thoughts and attitudes of human hearts. Let’s take a moment to explore several examples of how Jesus, sword-like, cuts through to the heart of the matter.
In my first example, Jesus himself uses the imagery of the sword. In Matthew 10:34-37: Jesus told his disciples, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. . . . Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Jesus, the active and living Word of God came like a sword to expose and judge whether the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts are more committed to our own family than to God.
Next, in Jesus’ first sermon back in his hometown of Nazareth, in Luke 4, Jesus preached the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” So far so good. But then Jesus elaborated on this passage to say that the Lord also favored the very people that the Jews hated. Luke 4:28-29 continues, “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove [Jesus] out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.” Jesus, the active and living Word of God came like a sword to expose and judge whether the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts are more committed to our own social and cultural group than to God.
Finally, according to the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus’ baptism, Jesus first preached: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus, the active and living Word of God came like a sword to expose and judge whether the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts are more committed to political powers other than to Kingdom of God.
In these three examples, Jesus gets straight to the heart of things, exploring whether our commitments to our family, our social groups, or political powers are stronger than to God. Time and again in his dealings with people, Jesus “cuts his people to the quick.” His insights and questions were sharper than any double-edged sword. He penetrated even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, fathers and sons, mother and daughters. Therefore, we do not read the Word of God like a book, making judgments upon it. Instead, the living Word of God reads us like a book, and nothing in all creation is hidden. When Jesus met the woman at the well in John 4, he displayed his full knowledge of her, pointing out that she’s had five previous husbands, and the man she was presently with was not her husband. When she returned to her people, she told them, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” Jesus is the living Word who reads us like a book.
In the process, Jesus functions like a sword, or shall I say, like a surgeon’s scalpel. He divides and cuts parts of our souls and spirits, joints and marrows that are diseased. Or to change the metaphor, the living Word of God comes like a prosecuting attorney to lay bare our lives, individually and as a society. He spreads out a full accounting of our lives before the eyes of the Divine Judge to whom we must give an account.
So far, this sermon by the Preacher of Hebrews is heavy, somber and serious. He wants his congregation to feel the weight of judgment. But that’s not the Preacher’s final word. The Preacher’s sermon turns on verse 14 with the word “Therefore.” “Therefore… we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God.” A priest is a “go-between” between God and God’s people. In a future sermon, I’ll talk more about the functions of the high priest, but one function of a priest is that of a “mediator,” a legal term for a person trained in resolving disputes between two or more parties. Jesus is the high priest who ascended into heaven to mediate between God and humanity. In other words, Jesus is not just the divine prosecutor; in faith, we profess that Jesus is also our divine defense attorney!
What’s special about Jesus as our high priest, or to use my metaphor, our divine defense attorney? Jesus is not only able to identify our weaknesses; he is also able to empathize with our weaknesses. There once was a farmer who had some puppies for sale. One day, a little boy came wanting to buy a puppy. The farmer pointed to the doghouse that was surrounded by a chain link fence. On the other side of the fence were four little balls of fur. When the boy pressed his face against the chain link fence, his eyes danced with delight as he saw each puppy yelping, jumping, licking at his face. But he also noticed something else stirring inside the doghouse. Slowly, another furry little ball appeared; this one noticeably smaller. In a somewhat awkward manner, the little pup began hobbling out of the dog house toward the others, doing its best to catch up.
“I want that one,” the little boy said, pointing to the runt.
The farmer knelt down at the boy’s side and said, “Son, you don’t want that puppy. He will never be able to run and play with you like these other dogs would.”
With that the little boy stepped back from the fence, reached down, and began rolling up one leg of his trousers. In doing so he revealed a steel brace running down both sides of his leg attaching itself to a specially made shoe. Looking back up at the farmer, he said, “You see sir, I don’t run too well myself, and he will need someone who understands.”
Empathy is the imaginative ability to step into the shoes of another to try and understand what they are feeling or perceiving. According to Roman Krznaric, ways that we can learn to be more empathetic include: 1) cultivating a curiosity about others and strangers, 2) focusing on what unites us instead of what divides us 3) immersing yourself in the role of somebody else for a period (like some pastors have done by living the life of a homeless person for a weekend) and 4) practicing the art of conversation where one actively and sensitively listens to others before making oneself vulnerable to share one’s own stories and pain. Krznaric argues that in the past, it was through ‘empathy campaigns’ – often spearheaded by Quakers – that took on slavery, prison reform, women’s rights and more. Today, we won’t be able to address current challenges if we don’t and can’t empathize with the victims of flooding or refugees in far away places, or closer to home, empathize with those in the “Black lives matter” movement and police officers, empathize with low-wage workers and high powered CEO’s.
Someone once said: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” To which someone else added, “After that, who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes!” Harper Lee wrote this in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation teaches that God in Jesus, “climbed into human skin and walked around in it.” “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” says John 1:14. The Word of God reads us like a book, not only to uncover our shortcomings and failures, but also to understand fully our human condition, our back stories, and our perspectives. Jesus experienced human weakness, he underwent trials and temptations, he felt what we felt. Jesus walked a mile in our human shoes, but while he was tempted in every way, just as we are–he did not sin. Instead, Jesus our defense attorney takes our sin, guilt, shame, and our false allegiances and walks the second mile to make an appeal to God to offer us mercy and grace.
How did Jesus the Word of God show his empathy in his earthly ministry? We can find one example in John 8, when a group of religious leaders tried to trap Jesus by using a woman caught in adultery. The accusers dragged the woman out in public, uncovered her sin for all to see, and as she was laid bare before the eyes of Jesus, the accusers asked him: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” Jesus then bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. John never tells us what Jesus wrote, but I imagine in this makeshift courtroom, Jesus the prosecuting attorney was reading this woman like a book, writing down all the sins that this woman had committed in her life. While Jesus was writing, the accusers kept questioning him for an answer. Jesus straightened up and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus then stooped down once more and wrote on the ground. Again, John doesn’t tell us what Jesus wrote. I now imagine Jesus the defense attorney reading the accusers like a book, and writing down all the sins they had committed in their lives, because John writes: “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.”
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. On the one hand, the divine prosecuting attorney didn’t throw the book (or a stone) at this woman. God’s judgment is gracious.
“Go and leave your life of sin,” Jesus said. On the other hand, the divine defense attorney didn’t let her off the hook either. God’s grace is judging.
The Preacher of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ is the Word of God who reads us like a book. This Word penetrates like a sword deep within us to expose and uncover our sin. This Word fully knows us but does not use that knowledge against us. This Word also fully empathizes with us in our weakness, walking that extra mile to serve as a go-between between us and God. That’s why we can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
In Christ, there is judgment but no condemnation. In Christ, there is freedom to go and leave our life of sin.