Guidebook – Rev. Virginia Reynolds

Becoming: Guidebook—Searching the Scriptures
Rev. Virginia Reynolds
October 11, 2015
Hebrews 4:12–16

We are in our second week of a series entitled: “Becoming: The Path From Here to There.” As children of God, we are on a journey and in search of the tools and path that will lead us closer toward God. Last week, we examined our need for holiness, and how we can set our spiritual compass on God and never be lost. Today we turn our attention toward God’s Word. Our passage this morning comes from Hebrews chapter 4, and has two complementary sections and a called action. I invite you to look for these as I read beginning at verse 12.

12 Indeed, 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. 13 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. 14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Howard Rutledge tells about his plane being shot down over North Vietnam during the war. He parachuted into a small village where he was captured, attacked and imprisoned. For the next seven years he endured brutal treatment including solitary confinement for five years. With the sights, smells, and sounds of death all around him, Rutledge wanted to know about the part of himself that would never die. But in solitary confinement there was no minister or Bible for answers to the spiritual matters of his life that he had long neglected.

Rutledge described how he spent time trying to remember what he had heard growing up in Sunday School, and tried desperately to recall snatches of scripture, sermons and hymns of his childhood. The first three dozen songs came relatively easy. One night during a huge thunderstorm, a bolt of lightning knocked out the lights in the dark prison, he lay down to sleep listening to the waves of rain falling. Then he began humming his 37th song. "Showers of blessing, showers of blessings we need! Mercy drops around us are falling, but for the showers we plead." 

Rutledge explained that he would wake up every day early, exercise and clean up as best as he could, and then he would make time for God. He said, "I would pray, sing to myself silently, quote a Scripture and think about what the verse meant to me. I never dreamed that thinking about one memorized verse could make the whole day bearable." He continued, “The enemy knew that the best way to break my resistance was to crush my spirit. Scripture and hymns might be boring to some people, but it is the way we conquered our enemy and overcame the power of death among us.”

You don’t have to be a POW in Vietnam to experience imprisonment. Financial difficulties, overwhelming stress, broken relationships, a medical diagnosis, or emotional struggles can easily steal the freedom from our lives. Much like Howard Rutledge, our enemy knows that the best way to break our resistance is to crush our spirit. But today’s passage reminds us that we have the word of God to combat the enemy. 

I saw this strategy play out through my own father’s life. A pastor for his whole career, 25-year veteran missionary, and a support to many other pastors as a District Superintendent, he ministered with ease. But after a series of heart attacks, followed by a brain tumor, and macular degeneration, meant the once-strong voice for God was quieted, yet not silenced. Due to the brain tumor, dad was left deaf in one ear, and his speech and ability to walk were both impaired. Physical weakness and difficulty breathing were daily challenges and the macular degeneration left him essentially blind. Although surrounded by family, and in the comfort of his own home, dad was imprisoned! Yet, his spirit soared with great strength. His wisdom never faltered. His encouragement was at the ready for anyone who would sit with him. One afternoon, I curiously asked him, “Dad, what do you think about all day?” He simply answered, “God’s Word. I’ve spent a lifetime reading it, studying it, and teaching it. Now it spends time with me. It speaks to me and teaches me.” God’s Word, to my father, was more than a book on a shelf. For 31 years of his medical imprisonment, God’s Word provided life giving freedom, encouragement and nourishment for each day. What imprisons you? Are there circumstances in your life which keeps you from living a full life? Where do you turn when your faith and God feels so far out of reach, and the enemy is crushing your spirit?

Scripture as a Guide
At the beginning of our text today, we read that “the word of God is living and active.” There are two things to note here. First, the word of God refers to more than the written text we hold in our hands. It includes all of God’s message—written, spoken, modeled, and prayed. The second part of that sentence tells us that God’s word is living and active. The same way that God spoke into Abraham, David, and Ruth’s lives, and those interactions were recorded in the Holy Scriptures, God is working and is speaking in our lives. If we took the time and went around the room, we could each share about how God has intervened, spoken in prayer, or inspired us directly. God’s word is as relevant today as it was in the day of Moses and will be relevant tomorrow as well. Like the POW, or my father, God’s word can speak to you, if you will read it, listen to it, ponder it, and seek God in it.

But there is a warning: God’s word will change you! If you read and study God’s Word, it will penetrate your thoughts and mind, and will alter your trajectory, because you cannot encounter God and stay the same. Hear the warning from our passage today, 

“Indeed 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.” 

I’m not great with needles, and so the thought of something sharp, piercing and separating joint from marrow is terrifying. Yet, “to find one who will know us through and through, who will pass a completely fair judgment upon us and our deeds—this is one of the persistent hungers of the human heart. The living word of God which discerns and sees is a word of healing and comfort. Certainly no soul is healthy when its chief concern is a half-hidden fear of discovery, whether by our friends or by God or by ourselves. But to be assured that God before whom no creature is hidden but all are open and laid bare, knows us through and through, and yet forgives us for Christ’s sake, this is health and peace and comfort and joy! But this peace can never come until the word of God has penetrated, exposed and uncovered us.” 

With this warning we also have a gift—the gift of confession. A gift you may ask? To tell the story of our shame brings relief, especially if our hearer is to be trusted with our secret. It is not fun to introspectively look at our shortsightedness, but God’s Word tells us “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Our invitation in confession is to put down the heaviness of the burden of sin, and to put on—through grace—the yoke of forgiveness. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The High Priest Revelation of Scripture
Beyond reading or studying the Scriptures, the author of our text discloses a wonderful revelation: We have a High Priest who teaches and models God’s Word. The author of our text, is speaking to Christian believers, specifically Jewish Christians. These are folks who had grown up in and knew well the traditions of the Jewish faith. They were well acquainted with the rituals and requirements for seeking forgiveness. The author, among the other objectives, is calling these new believers to hold steady and not give up. Being a first century Christian was not easy, so the author draws a parallel to something they were well acquainted with—the idea of the High Priest—and then takes it up a notch. The Scripture says that we have “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” 

Different from the Rabbis at the synagogue who could read from the Torah, or the High Priest who performed the rituals at the Temple, Christians have Jesus as Our High Priest. For the first-century Christians this High Priest did not merely teach God’s word, he was the Word made flesh and dwelt among them. He not only did the rituals for atonement, he became the sacrifice. This great High Priest was fully God—mighty in power, full of wisdom, but also fully man. The writer of Hebrews points out that temptations in every respect like our own were experienced by Jesus, and that his sinlessness was the result of conscious decisions and intense struggle, rather than the mere formal consequence of his divine nature. If you recall his time in the desert, the very human Jesus was faced with temptation of hunger and power. How did he respond to them? He used the Holy Scriptures. He was so well acquainted with it, it was part of his arsenal against sin and the enemy. 

The early Christians did not have a corner on this market of wisdom, we too have the same great High Priest, and the model of his life to guide us. The early Christians also knew that an important part of the priestly function was to hear confession, and our High Priest stands at the ready. What temptation today causes you to stumble? Like Jesus, have you considered combating it with God’s word? Have you sought for solutions by studying the life of Christ?

Take Action!
The passage concludes with a call to action. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Because we have the scriptures and our own High Priest to guide us, we must act! Not timidly or with hesitation, but rather boldly with expectation, knowing that God’s grace will help us. 

In Wesleyan tradition, we believe grace pervades our understanding of faith and life. Where “Prevenient grace awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us towards repentance and faith,” Justifying Grace allows us “through faith, to be forgiven our sins and be restored to God’s favor.” But the journey does not end there. “Sanctifying Grace, draws us toward the gift of Christian perfection, which Wesley described as a heart, ‘habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor,’ and as ‘having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked’.”

I don’t know where you are in life’s journey today, but to get from here to there, you have to move. We are called to daily move toward becoming more like Christ in actions and attitudes. Do you have a physical, emotional, financial, or social need today? Are you imprisoned by life circumstances beyond your control? Are you walking beside someone who has lost the joy of life? It is time to take action! Start as the Psalmist did, with the daily invitation, for our Great High Priest to “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. Next, trust Jesus with your confession, receiving grace and forgiveness from the High Priest that knows you through and through. Then, as Jesus, the POW and other disciples have done, daily invest in God’s Word—knowing that God’s Word will be a “lamp to your feet and a light to your path.”