Sunday, October 14, 2012

Standing Before the Living Word -- A Sermon

Hebrews 4:12-16

We all have a few skeletons in our closets. There are things, secret things,  that we’d rather others not know about.   And, some things are best left unsaid.  

Of course, it’s getting more difficult to keep secrets.  After all, as politicians are discovering, you never know who is recording your words and movements. But sometimes we, ourselves, put out in public things that come back to haunt us. You have to be really careful about what you post on Facebook and Twitter. You may think it’s just your “friends,” who see that picture or that comment, but there’s a whole lot of other people who just might see it as well.  So, as a rule of thumb, if you don’t want the world knowing your business, then don’t make it public record on social media.  You might also remember these three letters:  TMI or Too Much Information!

Because I blog and am on Facebook, Linked-In, and Twitter, I’ve left a bit of a trail.  I’ve tried not to share anything too salacious, but if you have access to the internet you probably can figure out who my favorite teams are, what kind of music I listen to, the books and online newspaper articles I read, and yes, you probably can figure out my politics. But then I can do the same for you!  So, be careful out there!   Early in life our parents teach us to mind our p’s and q’s, because someone may be watching.  Then, in order to cement that lesson, our parents tell us that we should watch out because Santa is always watching.  Yes, Santa keeps his list of who is naughty and who is nice, and on Christmas Eve Santa  checks and rechecks his list to see who gets a delivery.  Of course, Santa isn’t the only one who is watching.  Don’t forget that God can see you too! 

Yes, early in life we learn that someone is always watching, and so when we think about doing something we shouldn’t, unless we’re sociopaths, we stop to think about the consequences.  You may do the deed anyway, but don’t you look around to see who’s watching first?  You know, when you sneak that cookie late at night. If no one is looking then is it wrong?  Or, you push up your speed a little past the  speed limit, if the police aren’t watching, is it okay?  I mean, if no one is hurt, is it really so wrong?  Well, I’ll leave that to your conscience to decide.

But, even if no one is watching, someone is watching.  I know we sometimes think that God is too busy with the big things to pay attention to our little things, but is that true?  Our consciences usually say no!  

As you listened to the reading of scripture this morning, did you hear two different but related messages?  One message suggests that we stand before the Living Word of God, a Word that is active and sharper than a two-edged sword.  Although the rendering of this passage on the bulletin cover suggests that the Bible is the Word that convicts us of sin, the more likely interpretation is that Jesus is the Living Word before whom we all stand.  And as John declares in his Gospel, this Word became flesh and took up residence among us.   

It’s as the Living Word of God that Jesus judges our thoughts,  our intentions, and our actions.  He is the judge who sees deep within us, his gaze penetrating to the deepest parts of our lives, separating soul and spirit, joint and marrow. Yes, we stand before this Living Word “naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.”  

As I contemplated what it would be like to stand before someone naked and exposed, I thought of an image from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, which I might add, one of our members lent me and told me to read. In the novel, Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and former prisoner of war is transported to an alien world, where he is put into what is essentially a zoo.  There are windows all around his “cage” so that the aliens can observe how he lives, just like we do when we watch chimps at a zoo living behind a wall of glass.  And in this case Billy is naked and exposed – both literally and figuratively.  There’s no place to hide, no privacy.  As you might expect, it’s not easy living naked and exposed.

That is the story of our lives, according to Hebrews.  We stand before God, naked and exposed.  Every thought, every motive – for good or evil – has been made known.  Yes, someone is watching!  And, knowing this, while it makes us feel self-conscious, also stirs within us a desire to do the right thing!  

But that’s only part of the story.  Don’t give up, the preacher declares,  instead hold fast to your confession of faith, because Jesus isn’t only judge, he’s also the  High Priest who intercedes on our behalf.  As our high priest, he sympathizes, he understands, our weakness.  Like us, he’s been  tempted in all things, yet without sin.  Jesus tasted real life and understands our realities.  He faced temptation, but he stood firm in his confession of trust in God.  

Yes, he was tempted like us in all things.  He was, as John declared, the Word made flesh.  Whatever temptation is common to us all, he faced.  That was, I think the point of that very controversial film of several years back – The Last Temptation of Christ.  There are a number of reasons why it was controversial, but I think the most controversial point was that Jesus actually faced real temptations.  Not just the three in the wilderness, but daily temptations. And these temptations weren’t necessarily evil, they just were the kinds of things that get in the way of living in God’s kingdom.  

As for the last temptation –  I think we can all identify with it.  At the end of the movie, Jesus is on the cross and he begins to dream about living a normal life with a wife and kids. There’s nothing evil in this temptation, except that it suggests walking away from his calling.  The movie leaves us with a question – did Jesus climb down from the cross, return to Galilee, get married, and have kids, or was it simply a dream – a temptation experienced, but finally rejected?   

According to Hebrews 4, Jesus, the Living Word of God, stays the course, and finishes the job. He doesn’t give up the calling, but he does understand why we make the choices we make.  

He is the one who sees and judges our every move, but he’s also the one who  has been tempted, and therefore sympathizes with our choices.  Knowing this, Hebrews invites us to “draw near to the throne of favor with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.” (Vs. 16 CEB).  

This is the good news.  God knows our every deed.  We can run, but we can’t hide.  Still, there is a word of grace.  God’s favor allows us to come before God with confidence, knowing that we will find mercy and grace.  Now, we shouldn’t take this reality  for granted.  It’s not a “get out of jail free card.”  Thinking that way cheapens God’s grace.  But the offer is real and it transforms our lives, so that we can live lives of power, of grace, and of love.

Knowing that we stand before the one whose penetrating gaze is sharper than a two-edged sword, we recognize the times and places where we fall short in our walk with God.  But, we also know that God’s grace is sufficient.  

Knowing how grievous were her sins, at least in her own mind, St. Theresa of Ávila writes of her conversion:  
His compassion, I think, worked in me abundantly, and in truth He showed me great mercy in allowing me to be with Him and bringing me into His presence, which I knew I should not have entered had He not so disposed it.*

And this is God’s invitation to us – to stand before the throne of the Living Word of God with confidence in Gods grace.  As we consider this invitation, hear this prayer I learned growing up in the Episcopal Church.  Although this translation by Thomas Cranmer dates to 1549, it goes back much further in time.  
Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy holy Name: through Christ our Lord. Amen. 
*In Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories, Edited by John M. Mulder, (Eerdmans, 2012), p. 45.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 12, 2012 


David said...

Robert Cornwall said...

David, -- very interesting!!

David said...

Well, it was something. I hope you weren't being facetious. Here's the artists link. It's not nice to link to a copy. I shouldn't do that.

Robert Cornwall said...

Not being facetious. Thought it was a good commentary on the sermon!! I enjoyed it -- showed it to John.