Sunday, October 11, 2009

19th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23

Hebrews 4:12-16

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It seems like surveillance cameras are everywhere these days. They’re at the bank, at the mall, and at the airport. There are even cameras at some intersections. The purpose is to catch people running red lights even if a policeman isn’t there to see them do it. These cameras are supposed to be for our protection, or so we’re told. They’re supposed to prevent crime, or at least identify the culprit and make punishment possible. The trouble is, these cameras don’t necessarily record only crime. They record our comings and goings when we are just minding our own business, committing no crimes at all. They might record us engaging in harmless but potentially embarrassing activities like fixing our underwear when it’s riding up or talking to ourselves. Anybody might eventually see us on film, from the temp agency security guard to the head of the FBI. Security cameras give me the creeps. Maybe they give you the creeps too.
You might well have the same reaction to the beginning of today’s lesson from Hebrews. God’s word seems to be the ultimate surveillance device. God’s word “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Does this make you uneasy? It does me. All of a sudden the idea of being caught on film trying to deal discreetly with a lingerie issue or committing a traffic violation doesn’t seem all that bad. God doesn’t just see. God judges. And God doesn’t just see and judge what we do. God sees and judges what we think, maybe even before we think it! God knows just what we mean, good or bad. I didn’t curse aloud at the driver who cut me off on I-40 yesterday, but God knows I wished him grievous bodily harm. There’s no hiding from that God.
These verses from Hebrews tell us that God isn’t only able to see everything we do and know everything we think. They tell us that God is purposeful and energetic about doing it. The word of God is “living and active.” The word of God is “piercing.” The Collect for Purity begins, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” All hearts. All desires. No secrets. No exceptions here. God is searching us out twenty-four/seven. Hebrews doesn’t mention that God rests on the seventh day from this activity. God knows if we’ve been bad or good, and what’s at stake here is far greater than what’s going to be in our stockings on Christmas morning. It’s downright terrifying, if you think about it.
But don’t be afraid. There’s more to this story. It would be really scary if the first verses of our lesson from Hebrews were the whole story. Sad to say though, lots of folks think this is the whole story. For a long time, religion has been used as a means of social control. The message can be twisted to suggest that God won’t reward those who don’t toe the line. It’s like telling kids there won’t be any visit from Santa if they don’t behave in the weeks leading up to Christmas. For adults the message is like this. Follow the rules and you’ll go to heaven. Break the rules and there will be hell to pay. If the police don’t get you in this life, God’s hammer of judgment will get you in the next. Don’t curse or steal or commit adultery because God is watching you. Don’t even think about doing these things, because God can see inside your head and inside your heart.
When people think God is no more than a big cosmic cop, they may or they may not behave themselves. What they are likely to do is to cut themselves off from God. Think about the parable of the talents from Matthew’s gospel. The master gave talents—money—to three slaves. The first two invested the money, but the third slave just buried it. He thought that his master would punish him if he didn’t return what he’d been given. The first two slaves made more money and were rewarded, but the third slave was punished. His master was angry not only that the slave made no additional money but that the slave believed the master would react badly. Because this slave assumed his master would treat him harshly, he lost even the little bit he had been given. This is what happens to us if we live our lives in fear of God’s judgment. Like the slave in the parable, we will cut ourselves off from God’s gifts if we are so afraid of God’s judgment that we fail to see God’s mercy.
Fortunately, that doesn’t have to happen. God’s purpose for us is not to catch us messing up. God is for us, not against us. Just listen to the words of the Nicene Creed: “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” God’s purpose for us is a saving purpose. God is the giver of all good gifts. God is about giving, not about taking away. God is like a loving parent who gives us the perfect present. It may not be the one we asked for, but once we’ve opened it we know it’s the very thing we most want and need.
Can you imagine a better gift than Jesus? Jesus is God’s ultimate gift to us. Jesus is incarnate proof that God is a loving parent rather than a tyrant. God’s word in Jesus, too, is living and active. Living and active, Jesus comes to save us. Our lesson from Hebrews tells us that in Jesus we have a great high priest. In temple Judaism, the high priest was the people’s intercessor with God. The high priest was the one who entered the holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement in the name of the people. Jesus approaches God on our behalf.
Our lesson from Hebrews today reassures us that Jesus the high priest not only intercedes for us, he intercedes as one of us. He has walked more than a mile in our shoes. He has lived in our very skin, not only in good times, but in the worst of times, through his death on the cross. We don’t 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.” If you remember reading in the book of Isaiah, “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Does this sound to you like the son of a tyrannical God?
We’ll find more reassurance in next week’s gospel lesson, when we’ll read that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Our salvation is so important to God that God will hold back nothing, not even the life of God’s only son. “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” Hold onto those words. God can see into our hearts. God knows all the good and the bad in us, and still goes to enormous lengths to save us.
God has done so much for us. God continues to do so much for us. What then are we to do? First, you and I are to accept this love, believe in it, and trust it. Hebrews tells us that because we have a great high priest in Jesus we may “approach the throne of grace with boldness.” With boldness. Not in fear. Not like a child who’s been sent to the principal’s office. Since we have a great high priest in Jesus, we need not fear. We will not receive harshness, but mercy. We will find grace to help in time of need. There is no need to fear. Jesus has been sent “for us and for our salvation.”
So that said, let’s think again about God’s probing and all-seeing nature. Because Jesus is our great high priest, we’re not like Adam and Eve hiding in the garden because they were naked and ashamed. God’s purpose isn’t to shame us. God’s purpose is to save us. Since God knows us better than we know ourselves, God is able to do just that. Maybe we can come to know the same assurance as the person who wrote Psalm 139. He trusted God enough to write, “Search me out, O God, and know my heart.”
God looks into your heart and my heart all the time. God knows that what’s there isn’t always pretty. There’s at least as much sin and brokenness as there is love and wholeness. God could punish us. God could try to fix us. After all, that’s what we try to do with things that are broken. But God doesn’t do either of these things. Instead, God saves us. So when you think about God, forget about security cameras. Don’t confuse God with Santa Claus. It’s not about punishment. It’s not even about rewards. It’s about salvation, yours and mine. He came down from heaven for us and for our salvation. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate for our sake. As Saint Paul said, “If God is for us, who is against us?” Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.