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Hebrews 4:12-16

15For 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.

We hear the word ‘sympathize’ and we think about a set of emotions, a process of identifying with the feelings of another. And the word ‘weaknesses’ makes us think of whatever weakness of character yields to temptation. It is weakness that keeps me eating potato chips when I know I should stop.

But the weakness that the author has in mind is not a psychological one; it is our human frailty, our mortality, our membership in a world that knows sickness and death, war and violence, slavery and subjection, hunger and greed. Jesus doesn’t “sympathize” with our human condition; he has tasted it fully. He as shared it. He has suffered it with us. (‘syn’ = ‘with’; ‘pathos’ = ‘suffering’, ‘misfortune’) He has borne the heat of the day, the aches of the body, the pain of loss. He has known hunger and fear and sorrow. He has shared our suffering and dying.

Jesus has shared our human condition – “yet without sin.” Meaning that in all the trials and struggles, pleasures and sorrows of life he did not break faith with God. His allegiance did not waver. He trusted perfectly. He walked the path completely.

There is nothing we experience as mortal creatures in a broken world that Jesus does not understand, that he did not share. He knows our stresses and fears and pleasures.

The testing is a testing of whether, in such a world broken and troubled, we will remain faithful and true. It is not whether we will succumb to some unhealthy pleasure; it is whether we will remain faithful when the price of allegiance appears too great. Peter in the house of the high priest is a testing. The three sleeping in Gethsemane is a testing. Jesus’ followers fleeing when the soldiers come is a testing.

Jesus understands all those tests. And he deals gently with us. So we come to the throne of grace boldly. When Jesus meets Peter at the seashore after the resurrection and asks him three times “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, he is not twisting the knife. Gently he gives Peter the chance to rewrite the story of a three-fold denial with a threefold declaration of allegiance.

We are still disciples, still following Jesus on the path into the reign of God, still struggling to understand, still faced with moments of testing when it is easier to turn back, when it is easier to yield to greed or prejudice or pride or presumption. When it is easier to yield to silence or fear or some worldly attachment. When it is easier to succumb than show steadfast love to our neighbor and our enemies.

Jesus understands. But he does not leave us there. Like Peter he leads us back to the path of faithfulness to God and fidelity to our fellow travelers on this earth, our fellow children of a gracious but determined God.


Image: By Alexander Bida (WCG) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Your people”


Exodus 32

The Worship of the Golden Calf by Filippino Li...

The Worship of the Golden Calf by Filippino Lippi (1457–1504) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;

The pronouns in the first reading are intriguing.  Speaking to Moses, God calls the Israelites “your people.”  But Moses answers God saying, “Why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?”

We can laugh as God and Moses argue over to whom this “stiff-necked” people belong, but a very important conversation is taking place.  Who stands behind the exodus?  Who stands behind the humbling of pharaoh?  Who stands behind the parting of the waters?  Has Moses come out of Egypt with a ragged band fleeing oppression, or has God brought them out to meet him at Sinai?  Did Moses deliver them or God?  The leaders of faith communities often get this wrong – as do the people themselves.

At this point in the narrative, of course, this is a question for Moses.  He is on the mountain alone with God.  The people have remained behind.  They didn’t want to hear the voice of God directly.  It frightened them.  It confronted them with all the might and majesty and holiness of God.  Waiting behind, however, they have grown fearful.  They press Aaron to make for them a visible manifestation of the divine – a golden calf.  Rather than stand before the mystery of the infinite, they want the concrete.  Rather than worshiping God by the observance of his teachings, they want to worship in the way of the nations – a carnival of feasting, drunkenness and “dancing” (a euphemism for sexual behaviors). Drink and dancing are a shortcut to altered states of consciousness; much easier than prayer, obedience and submission to the holy.

But the argument between Moses and God is not that neither wants to claim this people. Moses is being tested.  His heart is being revealed.  Does he imagine that he is the hero of this narrative or God?  Has he brought the people out or has the eternal and ineffable one called them?  Something very important happens when we realize that we are not the hero of our own story.

The greatest temptation is that Moses should become the new Abraham – God will dispose of these “stiff-necked”, rebellious people and create a new people of God born from Moses’ descendants.  But Moses doesn’t fall.  He calls God to remember his promise to Abraham.  He calls God to remember that God himself has brought out this people.  He calls God to be the God he has shown himself to be – a God of mercy.  In calling God to faithfulness, he shows his own faithfulness.

In the end, the narrative says that God repents.  The people have not changed, but God has changed.  Instead of his suggestion that he destroy this people, he will forgive.  He acts in keeping with his nature: he saves.

And then pronoun changes:

14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

God is again God.  And we are once again God’s people.