Learning Obedience Through What??

Sermon delivered on Trinity 21B, Sunday, October 21, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Job 38.1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104.1-10, 26, 37; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10.35-45.

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

This morning we continue our preaching series on the letter to the Hebrews with its focus almost exclusively on Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin. In our epistle lesson the writer of Hebrews makes the strange statement that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5.8). What on earth does that mean and what does that mean for us as Christians? This is what I want us to look at this morning. 

As we did two weeks ago we come to Hebrews by way of Job. In the story of Job we have seen how God allowed the Satan to afflict Job with great loss and suffering of all kinds to prove Satan’s accusation that in the face of severe suffering and deprivation, Job would fold like a bad poker hand and curse God. Job didn’t and Satan is no longer in the picture, having been shown to be the liar he is. But that left all kinds of unanswered questions for Job and his “comforters,” mainly about why God afflicted Job. His “comforters” maintained that Job’s afflictions were the result of his sins. But Job adamantly denied this. He claimed he was blameless (not sinless) and therefore didn’t deserve this kind of treatment from God (and we are tempted to add, who does deserve that kind of treatment?) and demanded a hearing before the Lord himself. Well, in today’s OT lesson, Job got his wish (careful what you wish for, Job, you may get it). 

The story of Job points us to the greater mystery of suffering in this mortal life and throws cold water in our face by reminding us that we live in a world afflicted by Sin and Evil, a world and its creatures, ourselves included, that labor under God’s curse because of our sin and the evil it unleashed and continues to unleash (Genesis 3.14-19). For our purposes this morning, living in an evil-infested and cursed world can lead to two possible negative human reactions to the chaos and enigma of human suffering in which the good sometimes seem to suffer excessively (like Job did) while the wicked sometimes get off apparently scott-free. When we who actually believe in God experience this chaos and mystery we tend to think that either God has checked out on us—like when the prophet Isaiah cried out in anguish as he contemplated the unthinkable horror of God allowing his people to go into exile for their sins, “Truly you are a God who hides [yourself]. (Isaiah 45.15)—or we can fall into despair, realizing that while our own sins separate us from the love and Presence of God, we are truly incapable of breaking our slavery to Sin’s power or freeing ourselves from living in a God-cursed world. Either reaction can cause us to lose our faith and trust in God. If we think God has checked out on us, we tend to become apathetic and cynical and seek other gods like sex, power, money, security, or more recently identity politics. If we despair over our slavery to Sin and the chaos of living in a cursed world, we can fall into depression or hedonism, ultimately rejecting God because of our powerlessness. Both views have in common the notion that God is not big enough to handle our problems or the world’s. But our OT and psalm lessons emphatically reject that false notion. In asking Job if he was there at creation, the answer of course was no. God’s point to Job and us is that there are things beyond our ability to understand, but not God’s. Instead, when we are afflicted, we are to trust God to see us through the darkest valleys. But why should we trust God? Enter our lesson from the letter to the Hebrews with its focus on Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin.

As we have just seen, we are enslaved by the alien and hostile powers of Sin and Death so that we are unable to free ourselves from the sins that dehumanize, shame, and oppress us. Need proof? How about those new year’s resolutions you made last January? How they working out for you? Or how about your various addictions, both great and small? Have you been able to free yourself from them by your own power? Resolve to treat your spouse better or to do that next great thing, only to be stymied? Or how about the times you really tried to help someone out only to be lambasted for your efforts? Look at your confessions. Are you confessing the same sins over and over? No matter how hard we try, no matter how much we repent, it isn’t good enough. God’s people Israel also found this out the hard way. Despite their occasional repentance, despite the reform efforts of godly kings, God sent his people Israel packing for their sins. Self-help was not enough. In fact, self-help is a delusion.

And let’s be clear about why God reacts to sin this way. It’s not because God is an angry, vindictive being who wants to rain on our parade and who works very hard to make sure we aren’t having any fun or enjoying life (as if our sins were the key to enjoying life; who in their right mind really thinks that???). No, it’s because God is good and just and holy that he detests anything that corrupts his creation or us. Think about those who ordered the extermination of six million Jews during WWII. Is it OK for God to wink and look the other way over that? Or closer to home, think about the woman who’s body was discovered burning in a local park. Can a good and just God simply ignore that? Good luck telling that to her family who grieves over her horrific death. No, a good God cannot and will not ignore sin and evil. That’s why God cursed the world in the first place: to show his utter hostility to anything evil. Not only do our sins corrupt and dehumanize us, they destroy relationships of all kinds, especially ours with God. But God did not create us to destroy us. He created us to have a relationship with him, and he will oppose anything or anyone who attempts to corrupt, pervert, and/or destroy his good creation and image-bearing creatures. The whole promise of new creation with its absence of sin and anything evil is based on the fact that God isn’t some doting old grandpa who winks at our sin and the evil it produces/unleashes. Nothing is further from the truth and we can thank God for that!

So what does that have to do with our epistle lesson and its claim that the Son of God learned obedience through suffering, or with Job’s message that the God we worship is big enough to handle all our problems and the world’s? Just this. The writer of Hebrews tells us that, “While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God” (Hebrews 5.7). He is talking about our Lord’s struggle in Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion. Before we comment on this, let’s hear St. Luke describe what took place.

Jesus…went as usual to the Mount of Olives. There he told them, “Pray that you will not give in to [this time of trial].” He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. At last he stood up again and returned to the disciples, only to find them asleep, exhausted from grief. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray, so that you will not give in to [this time of trial]” (Luke 22.39-46).

Do you get a sense of what’s going on here? Jesus had been at war with the forces of evil and was tempted throughout his entire ministry to surrender to the demands of the Satan. The demons shriek as Jesus exorcised them from their victims, demonstrating that God’s power is greater than their own. As we saw in our gospel lesson, the dark powers even worked through Jesus’ disciples to tempt him to establish his rule as God’s Son in accordance with the way a cursed world defines true leadership—by lording it over others. Now here in dark Gethsemane we see our Lord struggling in the shadows of darkness with his last and greatest temptation. Both St. Luke and the writer of Hebrews want us to see that even though Jesus is God’s Son, he is also fully human and therefore subject to all the temptations and weaknesses we face. If, after all, in Jesus God really did condemn our sin in the flesh to spare us from his terrible judgment as St. Paul maintained (Romans 8.3-4), God needed a sinless body to do that, i.e., Jesus had to be fully human for God to deal once and for all with the power of Sin that enslaves us.

So now in our two lessons Jesus, being fully human and about to bear the collective weight of the world’s sins, your sins and mine, is confronted with the horror of doing that. We see our Lord somehow taking on the emotional misery our own sins produce: the shame, guilt, despair; the sense of hopelessness, total discouragement, and utter defeat we all experience over our being slaves to the power of Sin. We see our Lord beginning to understand the utter godforsakenness of the cross and somehow anticipating his cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me!” as he would experience God’s wrath and condemnation of all our sins so that we would be spared from judgment. Who in their right mind would want to undergo such suffering and experience being utterly godforsaken? And what did our Lord do? He sweat blood as the full realization of what he must soon undergo swept over him like a tsunami, and he asked his Father to be released from having to endure it. Here we see the full humanity of Christ at work. As the coeternal Son, Jesus willingly agreed to give up his glory and become human to die for us (Philippians 2.6-8). In his human form, however, the horror of his mission threatened to overwhelm him and that is the scene St. Luke and the writer of Hebrews invite us to contemplate. Pay attention, my beloved because you are witnessing your salvation unfolding. 

Of course, God said “No” to his beloved Son’s request. God had to if God loved us and wanted to free us from our slavery to Sin and Death. Jesus knew that too. But in denying the Son’s request, the Father sent angels to give Jesus strength to complete his godforsaken task, and in resisting this final temptation to be spared from the cross, our Lord and his work came to its full completion or perfection. Jesus had always willingly obeyed his Father. Now in the darkest night he learned fully as a human what his obedience meant—suffering for the sake of the world. In taking on our sins and dying our death so as to spare us from God’s just and right judgment on our sins—and here’s one of the punch lines so listen up!—he understood exactly the same feeling we have (in much lesser degree) when we are angry with ourselves and so filled with shame and self-loathing that we cannot believe that God can do anything but hate us for our evil. Jesus knows what that is like. He went the whole way and took the full brunt for us. The next time you experience that self-loathing over your sins and think that God can only hate you, go back to Gethsemane with your Savior and see him sweating blood for you as he prepares to shed his blood for you to spare you from your just-desserts. Then come to his Table and feed on him by faith with thanksgiving. If this doesn’t make your heart overflow with love for God the Father for his great love for you demonstrated in God the Son’s sacrifice for your sins and made real and available to you in God the Holy Spirit, go see an exorcist because you are being totally deceived by the Evil One and his minions. No one, I repeat, no one is outside the love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen?

And what does this great love cost us? On one hand, nothing. There is nothing we can do to earn it and it is offered freely to one and all. Christ’s death and resurrection witness to the fact that while we are all called to repentance, only God is powerful enough to conquer the powers of Sin and Death for us. Our repentance can’t do that; it can only open us up to God’s forgiveness. As St. Paul reminds us, in our baptism we share in a death like Christ’s so we can also share in a resurrection like his. When we are Christ’s we share in his life-giving death.

On the other hand, Christ’s death will cost us everything. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “God qualified Jesus as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him” (Hebrews 5.9). So the cost of our salvation is our obedience to Christ. But doesn’t that go against the inviolable truth that we are saved by grace through faith alone? No it does not. Faith is much more than articulating statements of belief. If we have real faith in Christ, in his saving death and resurrection, it will produce obedience to his commands. Obedience to our Lord’s teaching and way of life is the best indicator of faith we can demonstrate: to God, to ourselves, and to the world. Obedience is often very hard because we are so profoundly broken. And we will fail in our obedience because we are “cracked pots” as our own St. Augustine used to say, and that can lead us into despair. If you are tempted to fall into despair over this, STOP IT!! Stop it because as we’ve just seen, in Christ, God has broken the power of Sin over you and taken away the Father’s judgment on your own stinking sins.

Now unlike exorcising demons, the power of the cross is much less obvious to us. But we are resurrection people, my beloved. We have seen the shame and godforsakenness of the cross, but we’ve experienced the risen Lord and know the reality of his Resurrection. We believe he is our great High Priest who loves us, who intercedes for us, and who is infinitely gentle and patient with us in our weakness and infirmity. He knows all about being a human being because he was and is the only true and perfect human being. The Resurrection proclaims the truth that the powers of Sin and Death have been decisively defeated on the cross and we can joyfully await our Lord’s return to complete his work. Until then, we live by faith and this shouldn’t be so hard for us to believe. Think about it. During World War II, shortly after the success of D-Day, most observers knew the Nazis had been defeated. But the war still had to be fought for another long, hard year, including the costly Battle of the Bulge that following winter. The Nazis were defeated but not yet vanquished. Likewise with Sin, Death, and the evil powers. They are toast but they have not been vanquished. So we live by faith in the midst of all the chaos in our lives. This “already-not yet” reality also means we will suffer for our obedience to Christ because the dark powers, while defeated, are still quite active. The minute we give our lives to Christ is the minute we find ourselves at war. But we have our own D-Day. It’s called Easter and our liberation is at hand—partially now, fully when our Lord returns. So come, Lord Jesus, come. Until then be our great High Priest. Fill us with your Spirit and give us the grace to live out our faith in you by being obedient to your call to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow you. We can’t do this on our own power and there will be many tears and many fears along the way. But you will strengthen us because you know first-hand what it is like. This all reminds us that we have your Good News to offer and claim, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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