When I realized I was being called to go to Seminary, I had to decide where I wanted to go for my education. Having spent 4 years in Holland, Michigan for college, I knew I needed to be out of the Midwest, so I turned my attention to the East Coast.
Two options arose above the rest: Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Both appeared to be fine institutions where I would get a good, solid theological education.
When I stepped on Union’s campus, I felt like I was back at Hope College. The campus was interspersed with beautiful stone buildings, many areas of green lawns and large trees; it was a beautiful sunny day, so it was hard to not fall in love with the campus. There was something very familiar and comfortable about it.
When I visited New Brunswick, I first noticed how much pavement was present. There were few green areas, and the buildings all appeared quite drab and worn (one note: since I have graduated, they have given the campus a complete makeover, and from what I have seen in pictures, it appears to be quite lovely).
On Union’s campus, I saw a lot of people who looked like me; at New Brunswick, I saw very few white student faces. Union would be a place where I would be quite comfortable, perhaps even affirmed of my positions and preconceived notions; New Brunswick would be an uncomfortable place, where I would be confronted by opposing theological ideas and beliefs simply by virtue of the diverse student body.
During my time at New Brunswick Seminary, I met many people from many different worship traditions, from tight-lipped Methodists to eccentric, swinging and swaying Baptists and Evangelicals. In my worship and preaching classes, I was introduced to many different styles of worshipping and praising God, some of which seemed completely foreign to me.
While I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to be stretched and challenged, I am also grateful that, in that stretching and challenging, I found the voice to articulate my love of Reformed worship. Through my exposure to alternative styles of worship, my love for my own tradition grew and deepened.
The structure of our Reformed worship services is something that, to the outsider, can look and appear quite stiff and dry. They don’t call us the “Frozen Chosen” for no reason! It is true that, when it simply becomes typical and rote, our worship services can feel inflexible and lackluster. Yet I would argue that, just like the writer of Hebrew writes about the word of God, our worship “is alive and active.”
Our order for worship is scriptural, most clearly reflected in Isaiah chapter 6. There is movement in our worship: we approach God, we listen to God, and we respond to God’s word. It is in this movement, this dance with God, that we can find ourselves stripped of our sin, renewed by the Spirit, and challenged to live renewed lives.
The writer to the Hebrews seems to have had this movement in mind when writing His letter.
“Most of us have never had the need or opportunity to seek an audience with a king. Nigeria is a country, however, in which kings are still very real social powers. Although the country holds elections, traditional kings are still acknowledged. Every village, town, and city have a king. Anyone who wants to promote an event has to visit the king to get permission to do so. A king may be very rich or very poor, but he is still king and must be consulted about events in his domain. An audience with the king can be a challenging experience. Approaching the throne requires courage and humility, and frequently a previously scheduled appointment. To speak to the king, one needs an advocate, someone who can introduce you to the king and explain your cause” (ministrymatters.com).
Throughout scripture, God is referred to as King, regardless of who sits on a human throne, Israelite or otherwise, and it was the priest who served as “intermediary or advocate between the people and God. The book of Hebrews announces that the most superior of intermediaries is now available, God’s own Son. He is the high priest who intercedes for us and answers us” (ministrymatters.com).
But it is not just in the approach that we find our worship style echoed. In verses 12 and 13, there is a clear awareness for the need for grace, “that wonderful word for God’s favor and blessings” (ministrymatters.com).
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (12-13).
In many ways, this is a very frightening text. God knows us, and knows us well, which, really, should frighten us. We are sinful creatures, neglecting our neighbor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, focusing on our own selfish needs and desires.
And it is God’s word that cuts right through to the bone, able to split us open and dissect every last piece of us. It is “Only God [who] could so separate our selves and scrutinize our very being. It is the quality of God to so know us that we recognize we are being judged. Is it any wonder then that we become keenly aware of our need for God’s grace?” (ministrymatters.com).
In our worship, this idea translates into the different aspects of the Approach. The call to confession and the prayer of confession are the articulation and expression of this awareness. Yet it is always followed by the Assurance of Pardon or Forgiveness.
Yes, we must first confess, but that confession is, every single time, followed up by that good word of hope that God makes grace available to us. And in verses 14 and 15, we are encouraged not to despair. It is because of who Christ was sent to be that we find good news.
The writer of Hebrews is reminding us that, “Jesus’ perfection is not about power or purity, but about endurance. This Lord meets us in the places of temptation and weakness, experiencing all the human foibles that separate us from God. Yet Jesus is able to endure in ways we cannot- to endure to the end, to endure the darkness until it is completely transformed by light” (Andrews).
Scott Shauf points out that verse “15 emphasizes Jesus’ ability to identify with human weakness, an ability resulting from his own human status… Since he has himself faced the full spectrum of temptations, he does not judge us harshly.”
Jesus was triumphant! “He did not sin. He never allowed anything to separate him from God” (ministrymatters.com).
However, the Assurance of Pardon is hardly the end of our worship service. If it ended there, it would ring hollow. Our Reformed tradition is a Word-centric tradition, which means that the reading and preaching of scripture is at the center of our worship. We approach God in the hope that God will speak to us. To be able to listen to God, we must first be cleansed, purified, and reminded of the grace God has extended to us through Jesus Christ.
But then we get a word: God speaks. It is in God’s word that we receive nourishment and renewal. When we have received, we must respond, a theme we will pick up in another sermon.
See, “God in his grace recognizes our human weaknesses but does not allow us to stay trapped by those conditions. Jesus Christ, the high priest, provides companionship with God, which produces the holiness intended in our lives” (ministrymatters.com).
There seems to be a division in this mornings text: God judges us harshly with a sword that splits us right down the middle; but then Jesus steps in and puts us back together. Or even a bad cop/good cop scenario: God comes in to interrogate us, but Jesus is holding him back (Peeler).
Neither of these hold up under close scrutiny. “The Father and the Son are different persons, but they are both God and therefore are never at cross-purposes with one another… both Father and Son speak the word that exposes the heart and both Father and Son sit on the throne that offers grace and help” (Peeler).
We are encouraged this morning to bring ourselves forward in all our weakness and disgrace that we might receive Christ’s strength. “We bring our infirmity and receive health. We bring our trouble and receive help. Thanks to Jesus Christ the mediator, the priest, life is no longer a trap but an adventurous assignment from the king” (ministrymatters.com).
God’s word is alive and vibrantly active in our lives and in our world. Even though we have been placed under judgment, it is by the very God who loves and cares for us enough to send a Son who could sympathize with us in every way. A God who cares enough to challenge us where we are comfortable, and daring enough to call us out to where we may not return. Amen.
Andrews, Susan R. Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word.
Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011. 500. Print.
Peeler, Amy L.B. “Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16 by Amy L.B. Peeler.”Preach
This Week. Luther Seminary, 11 Oct. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
Sermon Options: October 11, 2015, ministrymatters.com
Shauf, Scott. “Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16 by Scott Shauf.” Preach This
Week. Luther Seminary, 14 Oct. 2012. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.