Cutting to the Chase

Sermon delivered on Trinity 19B, Sunday, October 11, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22.1-15; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Sobering words, aren’t they? So this morning I want us to reflect on what this might look like on the ground and why we should care.

We begin by clarifying what the writer of Hebrews has in mind when he talks about God’s word. The writer doesn’t tell us, but based on how God’s word is used in the rest of the NT, the four gospels included, it is not unreasonable to think that the author had in mind both the word of God contained in the OT and the message that Jesus himself had announced, that God’s kingdom was coming to birth in and through his work. You know, that strange little announcement Jesus made about the kingdom of God being at hand and therefore the need for us to repent and believe the good news (Mark 1.14-15; Matthew 4.17). Put another way, the word of God as the writer of Hebrews uses it means the promises contained in the OT that God’s kingdom or rule would break in on earth as in heaven and usher in the Age to Come, and how those promises had come true in Jesus, especially his death and resurrection.

This word of God, the promises of the OT made manifest in Jesus, is not some lifeless print on a page. It is living and active. It created the cosmos. And somehow it cuts right to the chase, right to our disordered hearts, exposing them and us for what we are: hostile and rebellious creatures who constantly try to usurp God’s rightful place and rule, putting our own wants and needs ahead of God’s commands and his good will and purposes for us. It is precisely this rebellion that got us tossed from paradise and causes so much of the world’s suffering and folly. Thankfully, God is busy putting to rights all the wrong in his world and we can join him or fight him. In a nutshell, this is God’s word. We can spend our time avoiding it. We can spend our time denying its ability to cut to the chase. We can spend our time denying that God’s word even exists—and it seems that more and more folks are choosing that option these days. But as Fr. Bowser so eloquently stated last week, our attempts to run from or deny reality really don’t matter. God’s reality is what it is and that means we have a choice to make. We can either run from God’s word or embrace it. There is no middle ground.

This seems to be part of the author’s point. We can spend our life ignoring God’s word, relegating it to the proverbial “to-do list,” precisely because we don’t see it as being relevant to our lives. But we cannot escape the ability of God’s word to judge all our disordered desires in the end. It will expose us for what we are, even what we try to cover up or repress. No use, says the author of Hebrews. God’s word will one day catch up with you and will judge you. You can run, but there’s no place to hide. And if you haven’t made the necessary changes to get your house in order, you will not achieve the promised rest for God’s saints in Christ when the New Age comes in full and heaven and earth are united in a new creation. And here’s a helpful hint. You don’t want to lose your eternal rest. Trust me. If we are looking for some feel-good passages in Scripture, Hebrews 4.12-13 probably isn’t a good place to start.

But even in the midst of this sobering warning comes encouragement. If we know God’s judgment is coming on our sin and folly, it is better to get with the program and examine ourselves in the light of God’s judgment and truth so that with his help, we can start working on the necessary changes we all need to make (more on that in a moment). And we get this at a basic level. Isn’t it better to have a doctor examine us right away, uncomfortable and even painful as the examination might be, than to wait for the doctor to do a post-mortem exam on us after it’s too late? Yet even though we know this is true about medical and spiritual conditions, how many of us prefer to live in denial and hope that our condition just goes away?

That is why guys like me, um, encourage you to engage the Scriptures regularly, because among other things we all need a healthy dose of reality. We live in a culture of increasing unreality where I’m OK and you’re OK and everything will be all right in the end. But that’s just not true and we need a healthy dose of reality and Truth that can only be found in God’s word made manifest in Jesus. The sooner we are honest about ourselves and our standing before a just and holy God who cannot tolerate evil of any kind, the sooner we will find ourselves on the road to recovery. For most of us in this room, the good news is that we seem to have a pretty healthy view of reality and our need of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But in light of our epistle lesson this morning, none of us dares sink into complacency because our tendency toward self-delusion is almost limitless. We need the constant exposure of the living and active word of God in our lives lest we head back to La-La Land and lose our rest. I can hear some of you now. Not fair! Not fair! That sounds like a lot of work! Well, yes it is because we live in an evil age and our hearts are desperately sick (Jeremiah 17.9). But don’t worry. There will be plenty of time to rest when God’s new world comes in full. When that happens, we’ll all be glad we were willing to do the hard work of living obedient and faithful lives.

We see how God’s word penetrates and shakes things up in our gospel lesson. Jesus is confronted by a man who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. The Greek for eternal life can also be translated as the Age to Come, the time when God’s rule is fully reestablished on earth as in heaven. So let us be clear what the man is asking Jesus. He is not asking how he can get to heaven. He is asking Jesus what he must do to be part of the Age to Come when heaven and earth are recreated into one. In effect he asks Jesus, What must I do to become a citizen of God’s kingdom on earth?

Jesus’ answer shouldn’t surprise us. Follow the commandments he tells the man. After all, God gave his people his commandments to help equip us to live as citizens of his promised new world. If God won’t allow murderers, thieves, adulterers, liars, et al. in his new world, why would he encourage us to live that way now? It’s not about being a goody two-shoes. It’s about living in ways that will help us become fully human beings again and that takes a lot of practice. The man tells Jesus he has kept the latter half of the Ten Commandments (did you notice that Jesus curiously omits any mention of the first three that insist on our ultimate loyalty to God?). So far so good. The man probably was feeling pretty good about his chances of making the cut. But this is Jesus he is talking to, God’s word made flesh, and things are never as straightforward as that. You lack one thing, dude. Your money is your god. It is a false idol. So go and sell all you’ve got, give the money to the poor so that you will have treasure in heaven, and follow me. BTW, in telling the man that he will have treasure in heaven, Jesus doesn’t mean the man has to go to heaven to access it. If I tell you I have a cold beer waiting for you in the fridge, it doesn’t mean you have to get in the fridge to drink the beer. Neither do we have to go to heaven to access the treasure God stores for us there. He’ll bring it to us when the time is right.

We hear crickets chirping in the background amidst the ensuing silence. God’s word, sharper than any two-edged sword, has just cut to the chase. The man refuses to get rid of his false idol and goes away sad. This story does not have a happy ending, folks, much as we would like to see one. We see only God’s judgment fall silently and terribly on the man’s idolatry and it means death. This is how God’s word cuts to the chase. Are there any false idols we need to ditch in our lives, idols like diversity, liberty, tolerance, science, power, wealth (none of which are necessarily bad until we make them our gods), the notion that all religions are equal, et al.? We won’t even know they are false gods unless we allow the word of God to expose them for what they are in our hearts. And if we wait too long, we will never have a chance to ditch them, ask forgiveness, and follow the one true living God made known to us supremely in Jesus Christ. Mark tells us this through the story. In telling the man to ditch his false god and follow him, Jesus is telling the man that loyalty to him now serves as the exclusive loyalty God demands of his people in the first three commandments! That’s just cray-cray, we exclaim! Aren’t there multiple paths to God? Nope, says Mark. There’s one true God and he’s shown himself to us in Jesus. End (or beginning) of story. It is right about now that we feel the word of God penetrating our hearts deeper and deeper. The writer of Hebrews would surely tell us our eternal rest is in danger if we don’t wake up and worship the one true and living God revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit.

Or consider our reading from Job this morning. Had Fr. Bowser not gummed up the works and complicated my task by his preaching last week, we would have seen how God allowed Satan to be present in God’s heavenly council and gave him permission to wreak havoc on Job’s life. Consequently, Job lost it all—his property, his children, his health. But of course Job is not privy to this heavenly agreement. He doesn’t know that God has allowed Satan to ruin his life. And while we are in on the joke regarding Job’s story, we too are not told why God allows evil to operate in his world to corrupt and destroy it. We just know that God allows it.

Now conventional wisdom in Job’s day (and ours to a lesser extent) went something like this. God blessed righteous people with wealth and abundance as a sign of his favor on them. This was the basis for Satan’s challenge to God in the first place. Job acted rightly because God had blessed him with lots of stuff. Take the stuff away and Job would surely curse God. It is also the basis behind the apostles’ reaction in our gospel lesson. If the rich who are blessed cannot be saved, what about the rest of us schmucks? Now in today’s lesson, we hear part of Job’s lament to God. He wants a hearing with God because Job knows he is a righteous man. Job wants justice, baby! He wants his day in court so he can question the Judge about all the unjust things that have happened to him, things he is mistakenly convinced God has caused.

But here’s the rub. Job cannot seem to find God. God is absent to him. No matter where Job looks, no matter how he cries out to God for a hearing, God doesn’t seem to be around. Sound familiar? Can you relate? The longer we are in this game of being a Christian, the more likely it is we have had this experience of the seemingly absent God. But how can that be? God is everywhere! To make matters worse, Job finally comes to the conclusion that God will do what God is going to do. After all, God is sovereign. No one can stand before him or change God’s mind. This realization terrifies Job. How can he possibly prevail? And he starts to lose all hope and heart. As we listen to Job’s anguished cries, not to mention the psalmist’s, whose very lament Jesus used on the cross as he felt the weight of the world’s sin crush him so that for the first time in his life Jesus felt his Father’s absence, we start to feel the word of God penetrate our hearts and it is not a comfortable feeling. We too become terrified at the possibility of either an unjust God who is unlimited in his ability to be unjust (at least from our perspective), or who doesn’t love us enough or care about us enough to be present to us in our anguish.

But this is God’s word we are talking about and while there is justice and judgment in that word, there is also grace, mercy, and forgiveness. And so we return to Hebrews for the last word. The writer reminds us that Jesus has ascended into heaven as a fully human being and serves us as our great High Priest, whose God-given job it is to serve as an intermediary between God and humans, a sure sign of God’s love for us. As our great High Priest, Jesus intercedes to God for us. He is an effective intercessor because he knows completely what it is like to be human, except without sin. Jesus remains fully human and knows our afflictions. He knows how we are tempted, how we are afraid, how we are prone to disorder and folly as often as we are to goodness, righteousness, and truth. This allows him to be fully sympathetic to our needs and answer our prayers effectively. Most importantly, he has the power to help us. Let that sink in for a moment. Let it challenge your fears and disbelief. Let it begin to heal you and give you the basis for real hope to be able to live in this world faithfully as his disciples.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that we are to approach Jesus’ throne of grace, God’s unmerited forgiveness of us through the blood of the Lamb, with boldness. We aren’t being encouraged to be arrogant here. To the contrary, real arrogance would be to refuse God’s offer to help and heal us through Jesus and the operation of his Spirit in our lives! No, God knows our weaknesses and offers us a real solution to overcome them. If we take this promise seriously and pursue it faithfully, there is never a reason we should ultimately succumb to evil or be defeated by it. Yet all too often when trouble comes, we forget this promise and fail to avail ourselves of it. Hebrews 4.14-16 should therefore be a constant go-to verse for us whenever we are in trouble.

In closing, then, let us resolve today to work on getting well, seeking the help of others if needed, but always approaching Jesus’ throne of grace with confidence and hope. Let us remember that this is Jesus, the one who died for us, who rules the cosmos, and who intercedes for us. Let us take our hopes and doubts and fears and dreams to him, confident of his love and power. Doing so is another way we can proclaim to the world that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity, as we invite others to join us in finding the love and mercy and healing we all crave. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.