+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
At one time or another, you’ve probably heard the old saying, “‘Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.” (Christopher Bullock, 1716) With apologies to the famous thinkers who have repeated this axiom – or something like it – throughout the centuries, including such bright lights as Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Defoe, I’d like to suggest that there is at least one other aspect of human experience that is universal, and it is a prominent theme in today’s reading from Hebrews. As I’ve said before, it’s not one that we like to talk about, but it is one that we can’t avoid. Suffering, broadly understood, is an inescapable reality for us; it surrounds us like the air we breathe, and permeates our existence in so many ways that we are incapable of comprehending it in its entirety. This recognition – that suffering is part of the human condition – has been around for a long time, longer even than the letter to the Hebrews. We find it recorded, for example, in the Old Testament book of Job, which precedes Hebrews by some seven to eight hundred years, and echoed by philosophical giants like Schroeder from Charles Schultz’ “Peanuts” comic series: …people are born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward. (Job 5:7, NET)
Though suffering is universal to the human experience, it is difficult for us to comprehend what it would mean for God to suffer. The Church’s hymnody is full of reflections that suppose that God is distant from the reality of human suffering Hear, for example, the words of this classic hymn:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise!
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
thy justice like mountains high soaring above
thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
(Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise – Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #834)
When we think about God like that, the first words in today’s reading sound strange to our ears: It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10, NRSV) For most of human history, it has seemed far from fitting to imagine divine beings suffering anything, and much less so to think that they might be made more perfect through suffering. Yet this is precisely the argument made by the author of Hebrews. The same Jesus who was described in chapter one as the “heir of all things”, the one through whom the voice of God speaks, the one who radiates God’s glory and reveals God’s being and character, is now described as sharing our flesh, our blood, our life, and our death, and more, that as the pioneer of our salvation, he is made perfect through his participation in the life of this suffering world!
That seems like a nice thought in the abstract, but what does it really mean for us as we live life in this broken world, surrounded by the inescapable reality of sin, suffering, and death? Well, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it: it means everything! It means that the one whose name we bear, the one who has called us into relationship is intimately aware of what it means to be human. Indeed, the Gospels describe Jesus in ways that relate directly to our own experience. He knew hunger and thirst. He knew the difficulty of being homeless and poor. He knew anger and sadness and grief and loss. He knew joy and pain, friendship and abandonment, love and hatred, confidence and fear. For this reason he is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters, because our fleeting and fallen existence is not beneath him, but part of his own eternal existence (Hebrews 2:11b, NRSV) When we call upon God in Christ, then, we invoke the most excellent name of Jesus with the knowledge that he has shared in our lot completely, and that he came to help [us], the descendants of Abraham in times of trial and testing. In the words of Biblical scholar and preacher Thomas Long, Jesus’ experience of being human enables him to be our hero, our liberator, and our priest.* The Word became flesh to blaze a trail through the muck and mire of the world to God’s own heart, and by his victory over sin, death, and the devil, fans the flame of hope in our hearts when we face those same realities day in and day out. The Word became flesh so that he could blaze the trail to freedom, not from somewhere else, but from within this world of groaning and pain, still ensnared by the fear of death. The Word became flesh so that he could blaze the trail between earth and heaven, stand before God as one of us, and bring our hopes and dreams and fears directly to the one we call Father.
This is a great mystery, brothers and sisters – a mystery that defines our relationship with God and the way that we approach each new day. Because of what God has done in Jesus, we know that the trials and tests that we face are not unconquerable, because we have been filled with the same Holy Spirit that strengthened Christ on his earthly journey. Because of what God has done in Jesus, we know that our cries for help will be heard from heaven – even if the answer to those cries is not always readily apparent to us. Because of what God has done in Jesus, we know that suffering and death do not have the final word, because Christ’s victory means that their days are numbered.
The saying is still sure: …people are born to trouble, as surely as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7, NRSV) But this saying is also sure: In Christ, God was born to suffer alongside us, so that we might know God’s presence with and among us in suffering. In all our trials, may we stand firm in the knowledge of God’s love for us, God’s solidarity with us, and God’s gracious will for us and the whole world.
* Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, Interpretation, John Knox Press (Louisville, KY: 1997), 39-45.