This is not an easy world in which to live. And it never has been. We certainly wish that this was not true, but it is. We yearn for a life of ease and pleasure, and even if we manage to attain it, we are never quite satisfied, especially when it comes to money. Most of us, whether we are willing to admit it or not, have a fair amount of faith in money. And while most of us do not really want to become fabulously wealthy, we do believe that just a little bit more than we have right now would do the trick; to ease the burden and help us to achieve that life of ease and pleasure that we so yearn for. Whether we like it or not, money is how we survive in this world. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve been waiting for the phone calls from people who do not have enough money. It’s getting colder, and I’m preparing myself to hear stories that are absolutely heart-wrenching. They are stories of desperation and loss, of grief and pain, but mostly, they are stories of fear. I can hear it in their voices. And it rips me apart because there is nothing that I can do for them other than to listen and provide a sympathetic ear. Sometimes, if it seems to be the right thing to do, I offer to pray for them. They are, after all, appealing to a church, and a church is a visible symbol of the presence of God. But often, the offer of prayer is rejected, and I’ve come to realize that in their desperate state, it’s hard for them to understand that prayer can possibly help. Perhaps they’ve already done plenty of praying. What they need is oil for their furnaces, or a place to stay.
I don’t often use large citations from other authors and scholars in my sermons, but this says what needs to be said in a way that is far better than I could have said it myself. Its written by Albert Edward Day, and it comes from his book, The Captivating Presence.*
“I came to a new understanding why Jesus passed up the religious establishment of his day, the economically secure, the socially prestigious, and sought out the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the broken, the sick, the lonely. He felt, as we so often do not feel, their sorrow. He was acquainted, as we too seldom are, with their grief. On Calvary, he died of a broken heart. But that heart was broken long before Black Friday, by the desolation of the common people. “‘In all their afflictions he was afflicted.”‘
“Most of the time we are not. We seem to have quite a different conception of life. We avoid as much as possible the unpleasant. We shun the sufferings of others. We shrink from any burdens except those which life itself inescapably thrusts upon us. We seek arduously the wealth and power that will enable us to secure ourselves against the possibility of being involved with another’s affliction. Lazarus sometimes makes his way to our door step. We toss him a coin and go our way. We give our charities but we do not give ourselves. We build our charitable institutions but we do not build ourselves into other’s lives.”
I am both humbled and shamed by what Mister Day has to say. But I’m not going to beat myself up over it, and neither should any of you, because the remedy for our situation is in our passage this morning. And it has everything to do with getting in touch with the Jesus who empathizes with our own weaknesses and struggles and trials.
As Christians, we don’t often think very much about high priests, and its usually not part of our vocabulary when we think about Jesus. But in Judaism, the high priest was a very important person. In Judaism, the high priest was the mediator of forgiveness between God and the people. It was his job to plead with God for the forgiveness of the people he represented. Religious leaders of the first century were notoriously plagued with hypocrisy, and Jesus frequently pointed this out to them. But in the high priest, there could be no hypocrisy. The high priest had to be fully aware of his human weaknesses and of his own sin. He had to be humbled by the state of his own broken, sorry life. And because he was so aware of his failures, he was in a unique position to understand and to be empathetic with the sins and the failures of the people he represented.
And so once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would humble himself before God, confess his sins and failures, and beg for forgiveness and mercy, realizing that he was merely a sinner in need of grace, undistinguished in all ways, from the people that he represented. Sufficiently humbled, the high priest would then enter into the Holy of Holies in the Temple and plead for the forgiveness of his people. But before he went in to that most sacred of places, he tied one end of a long rope around his ankle. And the people waited. If the high priest had sufficiently confessed all of his sins, he would emerge some time later from the Holy of Holies and announce that the people had been forgiven of all of their sins. And there would be much rejoicing. If the high priest was too long in the Holy of Holies, that meant that he had not been careful to confess all of his sins and that he had died in the presence of God. In that case, the people would pull him out with the rope and bury him. And there would be no rejoicing. Serious business was the role of high priest.
The writer to the Hebrews tells us that we have a great high priest, a high priest like no other. This high priest is Jesus, the Son of God, who has passed through the heavens. And that’s quite a mouthful, but it is the beginning point of our faith. It is our confession. Jesus is not merely a high priest chosen from among the people, he is a high priest chosen by God. He is God. He has passed through the heavens. Once to get here in the first place to be born as a tiny human baby, and once again because of his death, resurrection and ascension. And I’ve got a feeling that the writer to the Hebrews was thinking that his readers were maybe wavering on that great truth, and that’s why he encourages them to hold fast to their confession. He wants them to lay hold of that truth and to make it a part of their daily life experience; to remind them that there is a supernatural dimension to their lives that must always supersede in importance the natural, everyday dimensions of their lives. And we need to lay hold of and to cling fast to that same confession, because the daily grind of our lives can certainly obscure the presence of the supernatural. We don’t really live a day to day existence, there’s much more to us than that; we live in the sphere of the eternal, and supernatural.
But as important as our confession is, as important as it is to have a great high priest who is the Son of God and who has passed through the heavens, it is more important for the moment for the writer to focus on the humanity of Jesus, for that is how Jesus connected with the people while he ministered on this earth and it is how he connects with us today.
I want to go back briefly to the citation from Albert Edward Day. He says that Jesus “Sought out the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the broken, the sick, the lonely.” And if we can be honest with ourselves, we are all of those things. They are all apt indicators of what it means to live life as a human being. And if we are open to further pondering, Jesus was also all of those things, with the exception of sin. And that will become important in a minute. Mr. Day goes on to say that Jesus felt the sorrow of those to whom he ministered, and that he was acquainted with their grief. And Jesus felt their pain and their sorrow, because he experienced it himself, as he walked this earth.
And that is exactly what the writer to the Hebrews says. It is unfortunate that the editors of our Bibles have chosen to use the word, “sympathize”, because its not quite enough. It really should say “empathize.” To sympathize is to care about another’s pain or grief, To empathize is to feel it and to share it. To put it simply, when we suffer, Jesus, though he is lifted up to the heavens, suffers with us. And he suffers with us because he has endured every agony that we have endured or ever will endure. And while he suffered those agonies without resorting to sin, he certainly suffered the agony of our sins. He is truly empathetic.
And in this is why Jesus is such a great high priest. To secure our salvation, Jesus needed to be completely like us, and he was. But he also needed to be completely different from us at the same time, with respect to sin. And he was. And a glorious paradox that is.
But that’s a good thing. Paradoxes almost always are. Though he did not fail, he empathizes with us in our failures. And he stands as a shining beacon for us, to remind us that our weakness does not always have to be an occasion for sin. We can be poor, outcast, broken, sick and lonely, but we do not always have to sin.
And because we are poor, outcast, broken, sick and lonely, we can fly at anytime to the throne of grace. This is getting ourselves to Jesus. Yes, Jesus is far away in the heavens. But when he passed through the Holy of Holies he left the door wide open for us. Sinners though we may be, we can pass through that door with boldness. And there we will find our Lord, who is always willing to empathize with us in our weakness. And there we can find help, we can answer the accusation of Mr. Day. He says, Jesus felt, as we so often do not feel, the sorrow of the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the broken, the sick and the lonely. It’s quite an accusation, but here’s how we answer it. We start with Jesus.
In his ministry, Jesus was poor, outcast, broken, sick and lonely, often stricken with sorrow and grief. But in that state, he reached out with power to others around him who were also all of those things, including being sinners. And he has reached out to us, because we also are stricken with grief and sorrow, and we are poor, outcast, broken, sick, lonely and riddled with sin. And we have received not only his empathy but also his power.
And so therefore, in imitation of Jesus, our great high priest, we will also empathize with those who are stricken with grief and sorrow and who are poor, outcast, broken, sick, lonely and riddled with sin. And we will minister to them with the power that Jesus has already provided us.
*Cited in, a guide to prayer for ministers and other servants, by Reuben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck. p.307 (c) 1983 The Upper Room
The Captivating Presence
(c) 1971 by Edward Albert Day,
used by permission of the publisher.