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Access Granted

October 15, 2012

“Access Granted” Hebrews 3:1-2, 5-6; 4:14-16 © 10.14.12 Ordinary 28B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Who of us has not confronted with frustration the bewildering phone menu of our bank or credit card company, the cable or the cell phone provider, a government office or even a small business? It usually goes something like this. After you select your language, whether English or Spanish, you are instructed to “listen carefully, as our menu options have changed,” then press 1 for this and 2 for that, 3 for some other thing, 4, 5, 6… Each selection then has a sub-menu. And if you’re like me, often none of the possibilities match what you want to do, which is talk to a real person, and you’re left trying to figure out whether the computer wants you to say “representative,” “customer service,” “advocate” or simply touch “0.” As if this were not enough hassle, you must input your 16-digit account number followed by the pound sign along with the last four digits of your Social Security number and sometimes your birthday, in a particular format. If indeed you reach a real person who may or may not be able to help you with your problem and may nor may not have the authority to do something, guess what you have to give him or her, after already entering it? Your birthday. Your Social Security number.

If you prefer online business, like checking your account balance or downloading the latest MP3 from some hot band, updating your Netflix queue or getting a sweater from LL Bean, you need a user name and password. True as well for looking at or posting on Facebook or reading an article in the Internet edition of a magazine. Quite often to establish an account, you have to type in the distorted letters you see in a box on the screen. And then there is the security question or set of questions. “Who was your first grade teacher?” “What was the name of your best friend in 9th grade?”

All this, of course, is to prevent an identity thief from gaining access to your or my credit card, banking or other information. We accept all this trouble because we don’t want someone else making purchases on our Visa or cleaning out our bank account.

Access would be a daily concern even if we never called the bank or went online. Have you ever forgotten or misplaced your keys? That’s definitely a question of access. Or how about when you desperately need to speak with someone, but all you get is their voicemail, for hours on end? In the larger world, business people seek entrée into a potential client’s office, but have to get through a byzantine hierarchy of assistants, underling executives and call monitoring even to have an initial conversation.

That’s also true sometimes in the church, where people are supposed to be cooperative, neighborly, and friendly. I remember my friend Harold Jackson, who was the executive of our synod back in the day, trying to see the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Nashville during a campus ministry conference. The man’s powerful admin assistant, the most mean-spirited person I had encountered to that time, absolutely refused to give Harold so much as the time of day. She had no idea who he was, and he most definitely could not see her very busy and influential boss. The head of the synod, rebuffed by a self-important secretary!

We could also think of the college student who has to have a properly coded ID card to get into his or her residence hall and use other facilities. Then there’s our having to convince the TSA that there is nothing on our person or in our luggage that will pose a threat to other passengers or national security. If we are successful with the scan, the pat-down, and the luggage search, we may proceed to the gate area. And of course, not only military bases these days, but utilities and industries as well have high barbed-wire fences and security guards. All to prevent access by unauthorized persons.

Now, to be sure, God has no angelic admin assistant as far as we know, and there are no passwords or other information we have to enter to gain access to him, even though I suppose ritual prayers and formulas come fairly close. Some scholars say that the wording of the liturgy comes from the old flattery people used to heap on kings and queens in order to get them to grant a favor. And the way we treat the phrase “in Jesus’ name” almost sounds like a code to let God know we are true believers.

Nor is God hiding from us, screening calls or giving strict instructions not to be disturbed, though in times of trouble, grief, or pain, it certainly seems that way. But does that mean we may waltz into God’s presence without so much as a knock at the door, without the common courtesy we would afford a friend, a neighbor, a member of our family? How do we take seriously God’s holy majesty while claiming his promise of grace and nearness? May we sinful and thus unworthy people really approach God? And there is an even more basic question. How can that which is uncreated have contact with that which is created? Wouldn’t the two cancel each other out, rather like matter and anti-matter, or would not the uncreated overwhelm and destroy the created?

All these questions are major problems for the author of Hebrews. He sees access to God as the essence of all true religion. So he has to give a great deal of attention to exactly how human beings may approach this God, who is an awe-full consuming fire and must be feared as the final Judge.

It seems to me that the text for the morning lies at the heart of the author’s argument. Or maybe I should say his struggle. In several other places he has spoken or he will speak of Jesus as the “great High Priest.” He will show how the priesthood of Christ is valid, even though he was not descended from the proper tribe of Israel, that of Levi. He will ask how it is that Jesus fulfils the office of priest.

Here, though, the author focuses on two particular aspects of our Lord’s character and person. The first one is his kingship, his identity as “the Son of God.”

That term, that title, means many things, and I’m sure we all have some conception of it. Perhaps we connect it with the divinity of Jesus, though that is more properly “God the Son” and is a different and later concept. Or maybe we want to argue with the notion and say it places too much emphasis on the maleness of this one sent from God. We might prefer “the Child of God.” Or if we are rather literal-minded, maybe we go into orbit trying to figure out how it could be that God has a son at all. How does that work, exactly?

These are all important concerns. But let me suggest to you that the author of Hebrews has none of them in mind. Instead, he wants to connect the title “Son of God” with the ancient Israelite way of regarding the king. In the Old Testament, the monarch was anointed with oil, while the prophet declared in God’s name: “You are my son; today I have become your father.” In other words, the monarch was adopted by God. In return for this gracious act, the king was thus placed under divine authority; he had to obey God as son was expected in that day to obey his father. But also was he elevated to the status of co-regent, co-ruler, with God, in a way representing God in human form. More than anyone else, the king was to show God’s character: his justice, righteousness, compassion.

Somehow, then, the high priesthood of Jesus is connected with his kingship, his identity as the Son of God par excellence. As Savior, our Lord died for us, “giving his life a ransom for many,” serving to the utmost, rather than being served. But Jesus is the Son of God. He may have looked ordinary, but he’s not just some peasant executed by the Romans. He is the one in whom we know God in an ultimate, final way; in the fully and truly human Jesus of Nazareth, God has come to us. Our Lord declared that the reign of God was present in, around, and among human beings. In fact, it was there in the very person of Jesus. The king is among his people, dressed as they are, sharing their lives, even dying an ignominious death reserved for the low-life scum of humanity.

Yet that’s not the end of the story for the Savior-King. The author of Hebrews makes much of the fact that King Jesus has ascended, “passed through the heavens.” He emphasizes this so much that we are hard-pressed to find a reference to the resurrection in the whole document. Other New Testament writers looked at the whole life of Jesus in light of the resurrection; the author of the Hebrews hardly seems to notice.

Why? Because the ascension is the final vindication of the work of the crucified King. He is shown victorious over all the powers that would defeat him and us. As he sits now in the place of authority in heaven, he imbues us with his own strength and works to restrain the enemies of his reign. He fights to bring the final downfall of war and famine, greed and suspicion, disease and death—all the forces which seek to undermine the peace and wholeness of humankind. That’s why the author of Hebrews may urge his readers to hold fast to the faith they profess. They may rest assured that Jesus their Sovereign will empower them to persevere. He will enable them to resist every foe—from temptation to apathy to fear—every foe that would cause them to flag in zeal and falter in faith.

So, this powerful Son of God, this Priest-King, has gone “through the heavens,” opening the door, as it were, through his own lifeblood poured out in sacrifice. It’s that self-giving act of God in Christ that gives us our access to the Creator and assures us of a hearing. God himself has made it possible for us to communicate with him!

But you or I may still have concerns, based on our experience with trying to get people to listen. We might gain access, but will God pay attention? Will the time in prayer be like those meetings or conversations in which you get the distinct impression that what you are saying is going in one ear and out the other. Classmate, friend, or spouse, boss or board member does not understand “where you’re coming from” or they “don’t follow” you. You may as well be speaking in an unknown tongue. They look at you as if you’re from another galaxy, totally alien and strange. Your experiences which gave rise to the concerns you are trying to express are not appreciated as valid or important. Your meaning is misconstrued and distorted. Perhaps you’re discounted because of your gender, age, inexperience, background, lack of tenure in or knowledge about an organization. Nobody understands. Nobody has been where you have been or had experiences like yours. So, the request for funds or a change in policy is passed over in summary fashion. Your plea for recognition of your need or your opinion is ignored.

We need not fear such a snubbing in God’s presence. I love those marvelous words: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” Jesus knows! Jesus understands! And because he knows, because he has taken our human nature into the very presence of God, then God understands and knows what human misery and pain and worry and stress are all about. He knows how hard it is to resist temptation and sin.

One of the most despicable and mistaken statements in our theological heritage is that God is a passionless spirit. “Passionless?!” That means God does not suffer; God does not feel; God does not know emotion; God does not and cannot care! But looking at God through the lens that is Jesus Christ, we know God does suffer, feel, and care for us and with us. Jesus was tempted as we are to take short cuts to fulfill his calling, to be seduced by power, to give in to the most selfish of desires. It was not easy for him to resist. But the Spirit’s power, which comes to us as well, enabled our Sovereign to do just that.

Because we are assured of a hearing, when we come as our own priests to God, we have an Advocate who “knows where we’re coming from.” And we can have confidence that in time of need, which is of course all the time, we can and do find help. God is gracious; God will be gracious. That throne of dreadful glory, as John Calvin put it, is in Christ changed to the throne of grace.

Thanks be to God!

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