10/11/15 Sermon (October 11, 2015) "Sword of Grace"

posted Jul 5, 2016, 3:32 PM by David Hawkins
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16

 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.  For 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.  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Sermon: "Sword of Grace"             Rev. David Hawkins

In the 19th century, a philosopher named Georg Hegel came up with the wild and hard to understand idea that we can only truly get to know certain things, especially certain abstract things, through a process that he called dialectics. 

Now, I’m no philosopher, and so my explanation of dialectics might not be complete, or even technically correct, but as far as I understand it, it goes something like this: in order to completely understand the reality in which we live, we first have to accept the fact that there are contradictions in our reality. There are inconsistencies in the ways we think about things. There are different ways of looking at reality. There are different truths, for different people, and reality changes, depending on who you are talking to. 

Now, bear with me. We’re going to get to Hebrews any minute now. But first we have to wade through some pretty tall weeds, as my friend Chris Lewellen might say. 

For Hegel, there are competing versions of the truth, and in order to arrive at any sort of understanding of what truth might actually be, we have to find ways of understanding these different kinds of truth. In the process of understanding, according to Hegel, we synthesize a new truth that transcends our previous understanding of truth. 

In other words, in order to understand light, we first have to understand darkness. In fact, for Hegel, light and darkness are not opposites, rather, they depend on each other. They are critical to each other. They are two sides of the same coin. Without understanding darkness, we have no way of explaining light. It’s like trying to describe the smell of the color nine. And so forth. Are your minds blown? Mine is, just trying to define the word dialectic. 

Another way of thinking about it is this: Political parties form in opposition to each other as much as they do for any other reason. People who study American history know that the Democratic party and the Republican parties of today bear little resemblance to their forebears of a hundred years ago. Many of their core principles have changed, some of them in radical ways. 

But in one respect, they have not. They are still opposed to each other. In fact, it seems these days, that is the defining aspect of our political system -- opposition. If one party stands for something, the other party is against it, whether that thing is gun control, cats, vegetarianism, economic systems, or how we feel about Justin Bieber. It seems like everything in our culture gets viewed through a political lens. 

The point is, in order to understand why certain historical movements form, why political parties do and say the things they do, why well-meaning people arrive at completely different conclusions regarding certain things, Hegelian Dialectics sometimes comes in handy. 

Because the reality is, there are certain contradictions in our reality. Not everybody sees things the same way. Not any one system of thought covers all the bases. No one has a perfect lock on the “truth”. Dialectics can be a helpful way of sorting through the many different kinds of truths that communities might have, especially when those truths find themselves in conflict with one another. 

Of course, this doesn’t stop us from claiming the truth. We are all sure that our version of the truth is the one true truth, whether that truth has to do with politics or theology or economics or education. That our way of thinking is the best way, and that there aren’t any other good ways. That there is a single, definable, version of truth, a kind of truth that can be accepted as truth by everyone, in all times, in all places.

Hegelian Dialectics says that this kind of singular truth does not exist, at least, not in concrete form. Hegel suggests that we find greater truth in the synthesis of truths, and that in that synthesis, we find something higher, more true, than the truths out of which it was taken.

Again, this is heavy stuff, but, I’m going somewhere with this, hang with me. 

And so, to summarize, Hegelian dialectics is a form of philosophical argument that seeks to find truth through the rigorous application and examination of opposing truths.  It was formulated during the 19th century as a way of trying to come to terms with the reality of war in Europe, and how we as a people might find ways to study history in order to arrive at better truths.

But in reality, Hegel stole his stuff right from the book of Hebrews. At least, that’s what it looks like. 

Because Hebrews is all about Hegelian Dialectics. 

As we make our through Hebrews in the next few weeks, we are going to find the ways that the author uses opposing abstract truths to make a larger point about the concrete truth of Jesus. 

In fact, we have already seen a little dialectical philosophy at work in last week’s passage, in the first couple of verses in the book. From the very beginning, the author of Hebrews insists that we cannot understand the truth of Jesus’ humanity except in the light of his divinity. And we can’t understand the truth of his divinity except in the light of his humanity. 

Both of these things, which are utterly contradictory, are true about Jesus. He is us. He is God. These are mutually exclusive concepts, and yet, they are both true. If we insist on the truth of only one of them, and dismiss the other, we do not fully comprehend who Jesus really is. But when we, in whatever way our faith lets us, come to some sort of understanding of Jesus’ divine humanity, we understand just a little bit more about the greater truth of Jesus. 

All throughout this book, the author of Hebrews is going to be drawing our attention to this dialectic truth of Jesus. He will be using contrasting ideas, paradox, and diametrically opposed ways of thinking in order to try to find ways to talk about Jesus. There really isn’t a single area of church thought that falls outside of his dialectic argument. 

Law and Gospel, grace and justice, purity and unity, spirituality and materialism, all these seemingly opposite ways of thinking, all of these competing versions of the truth are brought together by the author in the person of Jesus Christ. And in him, we find a deeper truth, a better truth, a more complete truth than the incomplete truths which occupy so much of our attention. 

And today is no different. In four short verses, he presents two pictures of Jesus. Both of them are true. But they couldn’t be more different from each other. In true Hegelian Dialectic fashion, long before his time, the author of Hebrews finds truth in the reconciliation of two irreconcilable concepts: The sword of the Living Word of God, which lays us bare to the bone; and the Throne of Grace, before which we can boldly go, as we are, exposed, naked, vulnerable to God’s judgment. 

Now, before we dive into the actual scripture, let me say just one more thing: talking about dialectics is hard. Thinking about dialectics is even harder. But living dialectically is the hardest of all. It’s much easier to pick a side, to not have to worry about finding ways to reconcile the contradictions in the ways we think about things, or how we think about the world, or how we think about Jesus. We resist the idea of two competing truths. We work hard to eliminate all other versions of the truth until only the one most comfortable to us remains. 

And this applies to me as well. I’m all too aware of the ways that I choose to ignore the full truth of Jesus, by choosing to minimize or to ignore altogether those descriptions of Jesus that I’m not all that comfortable with. 

And so, like most sermons, this preacher is preaching to himself as much as anybody else today. We all have something to learn from Hebrews as he forces us to confront a Jesus that is much bigger than our limited imaginations allow him to be.

The author begins his dialectic with a description of the living word of God, reminding us that his word is still active, still valid, still carries weight in this world. Evidently, there were some in his church who felt that the word of God had become obsolete, useless, and had no bearing on their lives. 

Not so, says Hebrews. God’s word is still with us, still probing, still exposing the darkness in our lives, still pushing us to remember our first priorities. God is still calling us to return to him, to open our hearts to him, and to keep the promises we have made to each other. This description of the word of God is sharp, graphic, almost surgical in its vivid details. 

And then, just a couple of sentences later, he completely changes metaphors, from a sword to a throne, from judgement to grace, from rendering an account, to a place of mercy in a time of need. This also is the word of God: an oasis, a respite, a promise of Sabbath rest and renewal. 

Now, how do we reconcile these two descriptions of the word of God? How do we integrate this cold, slicing, merciless picture of the sword of judgment cutting through our deceptions, cutting through our very souls, with the safety, welcome, and sanctuary of a throne of grace? These are both true descriptions of the word of God. And yet, they seem mutually exclusive. 

And this has been a difficult task for the church. If the word of God is a sword, then shouldn’t we be wielding it like a sword? And, there are those who have done so. They stride around brandishing the word of God like a weapon, slicing, cutting, wounding, indiscriminately. They use the word of God exactly the way the author of Hebrews describes it, and the result has been a lot of bloodshed. The word of God is an effective killing machine, in the wrong hands. 

And then there’s the other camp, the throne of grace. This is where I like to live, theologically, if we’re doing true confessionals. A place where everyone is welcome, where God loves us and where we can sit down and relax for once. Of course, I’m aware that I’m eating at the same cafeteria as the folks that go around spearing people with the word of God, I’ve just chosen different food. 

This is the difficulty with dialectic. Both of these pictures of God’s word, sword and grace, are true. But finding a way to live both of them is tricky, if not downright impossible. It’s much easier to go to one side, to go with grace, or to go with the sword. This becomes our truth, and it’s our only truth, and we work hard to keep it that way. It’s much harder to integrate the two. And so most folks don’t try all that hard. It’s too much work.

But the author of Hebrews doesn’t leave us in our dialectical dilemma. He reminds us that we don’t have to choose one or the other. Because, in Jesus Christ, we find both. Jesus is the living word, his life and his death reveal God’s deep knowledge and compassion for of us, and his resurrection is the promise of our own eternal life with him. In him, God’s will and God’s grace if fully realized, and we know, finally, what God has in mind for all humanity. 

Not just a sword of judgment. Not just a pleasant place of rest. But something more, something deeper and truer. Jesus is more than a weapon, more than a sanctuary. When we limit him to one or the other, we limit our own understanding of God and the amazing things God has in store for us. But when we see him as the living expression of God’s word, and the living expression of God’s grace, then we finally see the full truth of God’s love for us. 

It’s not one or the other. It’s not sword or grace. Jesus is both living word and sanctuary. This is the gift of Hebrews, that the author will be bringing back to us for the next few weeks. Jesus is more than one of our simple truths. He is the living embodiment of an absolute truth beyond our imagination. We may not understand it. We may not be able to explain it. 

But we don’t have to. Jesus has already done that work for us. Thanks be to God.

Now to the Holy One
who is at work within us,
accomplishing far more than we could ever ask or imagine,
now and forever. Amen.