A neighbor of mine was recently pulled over for speeding in our beautiful mountains. He was driving over the speed limit. As the blue lights from the NCHP car flashed in his rearview mirror, the churning in his stomach was exceeded only by his anger. Putting on his best face & humble demeanor, he gave the officer the requested paperwork & noted the time & location of his court appearance.
On the appointed day, he traveled to the county seat in the mountains, armed with a notebook full of excuses to try & impress the judge into letting him out of his speeding ticket. His face turned gray when the proceedings began. The judge who walked into the room & took his center stage seat was a former student of his at High Point University. Twenty years earlier, my friend had given him a failing grade in a religion course he taught. With timidity, my neighbor approached the bench. “I am not going to get out of this, am I?” he asked. The reply from the judge was immediate. “Not a chance!” That is a role reversal.
Role reversals usually catch us by surprise. The letter to the Hebrews suggests that most Jewish people who had been raised in the temple culture & attended temple without fail on the Sabbath were shocked at the role reversal they experienced in Jesus. Jesus, who attacked the temple & its priests, is pictured in our reading as having become the High Priest whose sacrifice (his bodily death) makes everyone holy. This vagabond Jesus, born in little Bethlehem & raised in the backwater town of Nazareth, has become the high priest.
Albert Schweitzer saw Jesus of Nazareth as one who threw himself on the great wheel of history, determined to show humanity the kingdom of love & forgiveness that was lying crushed & lost within our societies.
In his book Dear Mr. Brown, Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote about a father’s desperate attempt to explain the nature of God to his young daughter, who was confused by the stories of war & destruction early in the Old Testament. (Aren’t we all at one time or another?) The father read from the later prophets: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, & to walk humbly with your God? Then he read from the New Testament: Let us love one another, for love is from God, & those who love are born of God & know God. The little girl thought for a moment, then said, “Daddy, God grew better as he got older, didn’t he?” That is one way of putting it. Another way is to say God grows better as humans grow into a more mature knowledge of God’s love & forgiveness.
The halls of time are crowded with men & women, laboring under the weight of the laws of the world & their own insensitivity & past experiences. Each awaits an appearance before the high priest, the judge of their lives. Each has in hand the accumulations of their lifetime, hoping little offerings of money, some understanding, & trinkets & accomplishments will sustain them.
I can imagine all of us one day, having been personally “stopped” on the highway of life, yet trying to remain calm & controlled in the face of it all. We will thumb through our excuses, our offerings, our lists of virtuous deeds, & our scraps of Scripture, hoping our hearing before the ultimate judge will go well.
The great high priest glances down. “I do not need your offerings, although they helped your spirit,” he says. “I do not need your Christian music, although I enjoyed listening to it, & it expanded your spirituality. I do not need your scraps of Scripture, although I am glad you memorized them,” he adds. “I do not need your list of honorable deeds, although human need required them.”
From a worldly perspective, things do not look great for us before the judge. You may be familiar with the name Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman. He spent 9 months in America in 1831 & wrote two thick volumes admiring the enterprising spirit of the American people & how they formed a polished society moderated by common values, civic pride, & religious observance. That was wonderful. But just 9 years later, he reversed himself & wrote that American life was dominated by people who lacked moderation. His exact words to America were: “What is certain is that, for some years, you have strangely abused the advantages given to you by God.”
That was then, & this is now. As we stand before the high priest in our day, we complain that we are hurting. But it is all relative. We are still quite self-indulgent, free & wealthy on a world scale, & have no real competition as a society when it comes to being blessed by God. China still labors under a communist government that represses freedoms at every turn. Over 25% of India’s people are illiterate. We do not have any competition when it comes to the blessings we Americans have received & are still receiving from God.
We still have an entrepreneurial spirit. Our biggest company, Amazon, was founded in only 1994 & Google was conceived in a college dorm room in 1998. When it comes to entrepreneurship, we have it. But when we look at the rest of the world, we have much to answer for. To quote de Tocqueville, we have certainly abused the advantages given to us by God. We 21st century speeders, each & every one of us, stand before the ultimate high priest, & our question shivers its way from our lips: “I am not going to get out of this, am I?”
According to our Scripture, the response from the high priest reverberates through the halls of time & the wreckage of humanity frailty: “Of course you are going to get out of this! I took all I had, even my life, & sacrificed it for you. I got the charges dropped, & I paid the penalty for you. I have erased the record. Now, get your act together & love your neighbor & the people in this world like I have loved you.” We 21st century speeders stand before a High Priest who has already paid our ticket for us. This is, truly, good news! There is a wonderful old gospel song titled “Jesus Dropped the Charges.” The O’Neal twins, fabulous black singers, the last of whom died in 2008, made it famous. The rousing song has these lyrics: I was guilty of all the charges, doomed & disgraced, but Jesus with his special love, saved me by His grace; He pleaded & He pleaded, He pleaded my case. Jesus dropped the charges, Jesus dropped the charges, & now I’m saved through grace & faith.
The genealogy of Jesus, according to Matthew’s gospel, says it all. The Jews did not particularly like women being in high places in Old Testament times; but neither did Americans until the 1900s. Women did not get the right to vote until 1920. So, it is surprising to find 4 women listed in the family tree of Jesus, especially since Matthew took great pains to run the genealogy back all the way to Father Abraham. These four women had only two things in common: they were all foreigners to Israel, & they were all involved in scandalous activities.
Tamar was a prostitute who tricked her father-in-law Judah into impregnating her, & he had to take her into his house where she delivered twin boys. Rahab ran a house of prostitution in Jericho. Bathsheba engaged in an adulterous affair with King David & maneuvered to secure the throne for her son, Solomon. And Ruth was a foreigner who traveled to Israel after her husband died, lived homeless in a pauper’s field, & crept into Boaz’ bed at night asking him to marry her, a foreigner, at the very time that Ezra, the high priest of Israel, had decreed that foreign wives were forbidden, & Israelite men should cut them loose to starve or go back where they came from.
What an incredible message is that family tree of Jesus! It is the greatest role reversal in history. Matthew is saying, in effect, “Whether Jesus became the Christ through a virgin like Luke’s account, through a baptism by John in Mark’s account or through his earthly father like my account says, is really not important. Things like that are not important. Look at these four women in the family tree of the Son of God. Look closely at them. God, through Christ, has dropped the charges.” There is no one that God has not dropped any charges we could bring against them. The late William Sloan Coffin would say, “There is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.”
Today’s reading recalls some of the most beautiful facts & promises of the Christian life. Verse 12: that, from the deepest love, Christ died for us. Verse 14: that Christ’s sacrifice is perfect & complete. Verses 16-17: that we are part of a new covenant with God & that covenant includes a forgiveness, & forgetting, of all our sins & lawless behavior. It is beautiful. It is a blessed assurance.
As Christians, we often repeat these things. We proclaim the love of God for all & the possibilities of a life grounded in Christ. And yet, for some—both believers & not-yet believers—accepting that message is incredibly difficult. For some of us, it is far easier to tell others that God loves us, like really loves us, than it is to live into that truth for ourselves. For some of us, there is no blessed assurance. There is shame, guilt, disappointment, frustration, & sadness, but not that blessed assurance. What is known in our minds has not yet filtered down to live in our hearts.
It is often times a journey to accept & live into the love of God. To truly dwell in the fact that we are beloved children of God not only because we are human beings (& God loves all human beings) but because of the unique factors that make us each an individual, is not something that happens instantaneously for everyone. Hebrews offers not only the list of promises, but also a way to move forward on that journey.
In verses 23-25, we read: Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable. Let’s also think about how to motivate each other to show love & to do good works. Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.
It is the church. It is the community. It is living together in both a spirit of confession & celebration. That is how we learn to accept our belovedness. That is how we show others they are loved.
These words were written to a persecuted people. A people rejected by their friends & family for their choice to follow Jesus. A people persecuted for being different in an empire that did not care for such things. A people who fit in with no one but each other. Amid all of this, perhaps they too needed a reminder of their being loved. A reminder of the promise of the Gospel—that Jesus, the High Priest, had not abandoned them but was waiting at the right hand of God. The people of Hebrews lived in the reality of the Kingdom already realized with the concurrent reality of the earth that is not yet.
For those of us that still struggle with living in the truth of our blessed assurance, we are living in the reality of the not yet. That is not to say that it is sinful, or wrong, or bad. It is to say that it is a reality & a struggle for some folks. It just is. But it stands as an opportunity for the church to be a source of encouragement and a reminder of the truth of God’s love for all people. That nothing can separate us from the love of God. That Jesus is both waiting at the right hand of God until his enemies are made a footstool for his feet and yet present with us. It is part of that beautiful mystery of faith.
I hope that when we realize anew that Jesus has dropped the charges, we can all get our lives together & let our roles get reversed, our values get reversed, & our cynicism get reversed, especially in these times in which we live. Jesus not only loves me, this I know, but Jesus has dropped the charges – for everybody I know!