The Sunday Sermon: Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 26, 2020
Scripture: Hebrews 4:14-16
Jesus: And So Divine
It’s been happening all our lives long and we still don’t quite get it. Or we do and we aren’t admitting it, aren’t acknowledging it, aren’t allowing it. In any case, it’s taking forever – understanding the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. And that’s alright, we noted last week. Faith is about persevering as much as anything else. We walk on, year after year, hoping that something different, something original, or maybe something very ancient, will be heard in a new way. We’re doing it again this year – listening for something new.
A few weeks ago we stepped into the river with Jesus once again, remembering our own baptism by remembering his. And in so doing, we set off once again to better understand who this man was, and is. We started last week by exploring Jesus as fully human. Jesus does not differ from us in kind, I told you, only in degree. Jesus is not special because he had a divine “boost” that we don’t have. He was special because he was an utterly remarkable human being. Like you and me … only more – utterly remarkable. So much more that his followers for two thousand years have seen in him the decisive revelation of God-with-us. And here was the “set-up” for this week, the next leg of our journey this year: Jesus … fully human; and so … divine?
We ended with this question on our hearts: What have we gotten ourselves into, what have we stepped into, this time around, this year?
Well, this morning, the river is going to get a little deeper and the current a little swifter. For this morning we are going to explore divinity and “sin,” or more specifically what “without sin may mean.” If we are to be honest about our understanding of Jesus as “God” and Jesus as “without sin”, then we must offer an understanding of what both of these notions, divinity and sin, can mean in the 21st century.
So, as my father always told me at poolside as I contemplated how cold and wet the water was going to be, “Best to jump right in!” So, I begin with another provocative proclamation this morning. Divinity:
You are God. But … God is not you. Pray with me.
And now listen to two verses from the Book of Hebrews that are not listed in your bulletin. Two verses that immediately precede our formal reading. Read Hebrews 4:12-13.
I added these two short, but powerful, verses to the reading listed in your bulletin this morning because I became aware this week of my own concern, fear really, of what I was preparing in my sermon message for this morning. I was, and I am, engaging the word of God in these verses from Hebrews in ways that “cut” and “pierce” and potentially “divide” us from traditional interpretations and from comfortable understandings. I was reminded by these verses that most immediately precede the ones I was studying that this is what they are supposed to do, what the whole of scripture is supposed to do – to challenge and confront, as much as comfort us. I just prayed and am praying that as we “come out of hiding” and are “laid bare” by this reading and by this interpretation that any “judgment on the thoughts and intentions of my heart”, and of ours, is deemed to be faithful and toward a deeper understanding of who God is, who we are, and how we are supposed to live.
Listen, again, for the Word of God. Read Hebrews 4:14-16. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
If Jesus is “God,” God-with-us, then couldn’t this passage be a description, an earthly, worldly, practical definition of divinity? If Jesus is “God,” and we profess him to be, and Jesus is like us, “one who in every respect was tested as we are, yet without sin,” then “God” may be understood as “humanity lived perfectly,” or as you have heard me saying for a decade and more, “fully.” Divinity, in and through our Christian faith, in and through our unique Christian profession of the revelation of God in a human being, (divinity) becomes “real,” solid, almost tangible. Almost because we no longer have the one Hebrews calls our “great high priest,” the one who first followers called God-with-us, beside us as he was beside others two thousand years ago. Or do we?
If we are to answer that question honestly in our day and time, in 21st century North America, we have to find understandings of and expressions for “God,” and for the experiences of “God-with-us” that go beyond those of the 1st, 4th, 16th, and even 20th centuries. It simply does us no good to consider “God” as a “person-like” being separate from the universe and from all other “beings”, supernatural and external to creation, personal in the sense of being somewhat like us, but ultimately untouchable. That understanding of “divinity” found its place throughout the centuries primarily as a means to control the masses, to maintain an institution, and comfort those in control. But we must begin to talk differently about who God is, who we are, and how we are supposed to live in this century. It’s past time.
And it’s fascinating to me, and should be to you, that this suggestion – that “God” be brought “out of the sky,” that “God” be understood and expressed not as supernatural and external to life as we know it, as we experience it – that this suggestion be offensive, or even blasphemous, to Christians, because this is exactly the suggestion-turned confession that those who walked, talked, ate, slept, laughed, cried, lived and died with Jesus of Nazareth did two thousand years ago!
“God” was a reality that was with them “who in every respect was tested” – lived, breathed, was tempted and tried – “as they were.” The only difference, according to this description of divinity – of God, was that this God-with-us was “without sin.” A big difference, to be sure. But perhaps not for the reasons we’ve come to accept, or come to allow.
Like an understanding of divinity, and so much other traditional Christian vocabulary, we need to re-define what is meant by “sin,” and so what it may look like to live “without sin,” to live like Jesus lived. “Sin” (as disobedience) needs to be demoted from its status as the dominant Christian metaphor for “what’s wrong” with us, and among us (Borg, Speaking Christian, 144). It’s not the only scriptural description of the human condition.
The church’s emphasis on disobedience, or wrongdoing, as the central issue and forgiveness as our central need is very old and established. It comes out of the process of accommodating Christianity to the dominant culture, namely, the Roman Empire in the fourth century when emperor Constantin adopted it. We’ve been studying that a bit in the Thoughtful Christian class this month. When we talk about, think about, and ask forgiveness in the church (and we do it at the beginning of every worship hour!) we almost always use the plural noun, “sins.” We individualize “sin,” and understand our sins (or the sins of others) and acts of wrongdoing committed by us as individuals, those places in our life that we “miss the mark.” And we ask for forgiveness. Our Bible does speak of sins in this way, and sin as wrongdoing does matter. But the bible also, and even more often, speaks about “Sin” in the singular, lifting up and calling out institutionalized sin, systemic sin, sin built into the structures of society. And we don’t “fix” such Sin by simply “forgiving” it. We work to change it, to get rid of it, to transform it into justice for all.
Further, “sin”, either individual or institutional, is not the only biblical image for the human condition, but one of several. We aren’t just “disobedient,” we don’t just “miss the mark.” We are also “in bondage.” The whole Moses-Exodus chronical is much more than history. As slaves in bondage, we don’t need forgiveness. We need liberation.
We are in exile. The Babylonian and Assyrian exiles in ancient Israel’s past are much more than a history lesson. As people in exile, we don’t need forgiveness. We need a path of return. (Hear our silent prayers … of return.)
Another biblical image for the human condition is “infirmity.” These images are all over the New Testament and the Gospels. We are ill, blind, paralyzed, bent, burdened, deaf, wounded. What’s more, we’re hungry and thirsty and naked. As infirm people, we don’t need forgiveness. We need healing and wholeness. We need food and water. We need clothes and shelter.
Sin is so much more than disobedience, or wrongdoing, or missing the mark – lying, stealing, getting angry, eating too much, sleeping too much, being too full of pride. And living without sin is so much more than “not” being disobedient to the will of God.
Living “without sin” means not living according to Pharaoh’s, or Caesar’s, or the Empire in any age’s rule. But living according to God’s rule.
Living “without sin” means finding a way back, a path or return, to the will of God when we have strayed. And, I would suggest, providing that path to others – preparing the way of the Lord. (Sound familiar?)
Living “without sin” means allowing ourselves to be healed by God, to see God’s way, to listen to God’s will, to not be burdened with the desires of this world, to pick up our mat and walk in the Way of God, the Way of Christ, the Way of Jesus, who was like us in every way except he did it. He lived “without sin.” He wasn’t bound by this world’s temptations, but denounced them. He wasn’t exiled, or apart, from God, but provided a path to God. He wasn’t paralyzed from, blind to, or burdened by the suffering all around him, but was moved to compassion by it all. He wasn’t hungry or thirsty for, or deaf to, God’s commands to love one another, but followed that command by loving wastefully and without counting the cost. He was “divine,” God-with-us, God on earth … God.
It’s fascinating to me that the text we read this morning, and much of the rest of the book of Hebrews and the “high Christology” it contains, has been used most often to separate Jesus from us, to illustrate how different he is from us, to underscore a teaching of “substitutionary atonement” that lets us off the hook; that essentially teaches us that what God requires of us has been done through Jesus, so all we have to do is “believe.” And yet here, fairly early in his writing, the author of Hebrews offers another possibility, a more “nuanced” interpretation of Jesus, his life, and his death – an interpretation that calls us not only to “believe,” but to “do likewise.” To live and die as God on earth.
We seize on that possible interpretation this morning and claim divinity for ourselves, just as Jesus did. He understood that God and the Kingdom of God was within us, among us, on earth as it is in heaven. He lived his life as one “divine” and died to all that separated him for a Truth in this world no less real than a God beyond it. He claimed his divinity through his humanity. What about us? When will we have the boldness to believe that “I am God” with the humility to acknowledge that “God is not me.” And join those two with the courage to live like Jesus: “without sin.”
It hasn’t happened yet. And maybe it never will. But, if our ears are truly open and our hearts are truly receptive, then we can no longer place the blame for our shortcomings anywhere other than at our own feet. What does the Lord require of you? … He has shown you what is good. Go and do likewise.
I told you, the water was deep and the current is swift. We’ll consider in the weeks ahead the ways in which Jesus lived “without sin” that we may find our lives even more deeply in his. Fully human … And so, Divine. It may be so. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 26, 2020