Sunday 14 October 2018
The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28B
This week and next week, we’re going to be looking a little more closely at the readings from Hebrews. Just a little bit of background. This book is sometimes referred to as Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews. However, it definitely isn’t written by Paul, it is not an epistle, and it isn’t addressed to the Hebrews. It is written by an anonymous author, it seems to be roughly in the form of a long sermon, and it never explicitly says who it might be addressed to. It’s kind of it’s own thing.
And the theology in Hebrews is unlike any other book that we have in the New Testament. There is nowhere else that Jesus is ever described as a priest, but in Hebrews, the main image used for Jesus is that of priest. When Hebrews talks about a great high priest, it’s talking about Jesus.
But before we explore that idea more, let’s get to the beginning of the passage that we read this morning. “God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow.” Sometimes this passage is read as something very fearsome. God confronts us with a sword, an instrument of war and death, and tool of dismemberment. The judgement of God’s word cuts deep into us, leaving us utterly powerless, completely exposed.
But the word used for sword here, μαχαιραν, doesn’t necessarily mean sword. It can be used for any kind of dagger or knife. In fact, when it is used to describe a sword, it almost always refers to a single-edged sword, a sword that is used for slashing, rather than a sword that is used for stabbing. More likely we’re talking about some kind of knife.
Which for some reason makes me think of an infomercial. “And just check out the unparalleled sharpness of the Logoblade. It cuts through meat. It cuts through vegetables. It even cuts through this coffee can and still stays sharp. And it’s so precise, it can even separate joints from marrow. It can even separate soul from spirit. Order now while supplies last.”
But it’s the word of God we’re talking about here. What is that supposed to mean that the word of God is like a sharp knife that divides soul from spirit, divides joint from marrow? The following verse helps. “It is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we give an answer.”
This two-sided blade, this word of God is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It is able to lay things bare. Which is all the more reason to think that we are not talking about a sword here. What we are talking about is a scalpel. Archeologists have discovered scalpels from this period. Surgical tools with a handle in the middle and a blade on each side, a bit like a modern dental tool with a different hook on each side, to be used for different applications.
The word of God is a scalpel. It is so sharp it can divide joint from marrow. It lays things bare. It pierces straight to the heart, separates the soul from the spirit, separates life from breath. It exposes our true self, leaves nothing hidden, puts our deepest secrets on full display.
It is the word of God that does this. It is the word of God that lays us bare. The word of God both as we read it in the bible, but also as we experience it in the proclamation of the community.
In Lutheran theology, we use two words to talk about the function of scripture: law and gospel. Sometimes people use law and gospel to distinguish between the Old Testament and the New Testament, but that’s an oversimplification. The Old Testament contains both law and gospel. The New Testament contains both law and gospel.
The law is rules, guidelines, commandments, instructions for how to live. Law shows us the ways of God. It gives us a framework for how to live a holy life. And it tends to operate on a few different levels. It often first works through fear. We receive commandments, we are afraid of God’s punishment, and that helps to keep us from evil actions. But that is only the most base function of the law. It can also work as a mirror. It allows us to compare our lives to the perfect standard of God. We can see exactly who we are, with all of our faults, failings, weaknesses, and wounds. In the traditional language, the law makes us aware of our own sin. It holds us up to the mirror so we can see ourselves as God sees us.
And it is in this second sense of the law that the word of God seems to be operating in this passage. The word of God, as we read it in the bible, as we proclaim it in preaching, as we experience it through our study together and through prophetic words, it cuts through our defenses, our disguises, right to the heart of the matter. It discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It leaves nothing hidden. It shows us exactly who we are, with our weakness and our wounds. It exposes us to God. It provides that mirror. It reveals our true selves.
But that is not all. It does not leave us exposed, humiliated, and hopeless. The word of God is not only law. It is also gospel. The gospel, the good news, is the promise of grace through Jesus Christ. It acknowledges that we do not meet God’s standard, but asserts that God’s law is overwhelmed by God’s grace. According to the law, we are convicted. According to the gospel, we are pardoned and liberated.
Here in Hebrews, the gospel message of grace comes in two forms. It comes most obviously in Jesus’s role as a cosmic high priest. God has raised up Jesus to act as a priest, a priest who is both priest and sacrifice. He offers his own blood for the redemption of the world. This act of extreme love gives us hope in God. Jesus knows our human condition because he became human himself, like us. And his sacrifice of love proves God’s grace for us, a grace that justifies us. We’ll explore this image of Jesus as high priest a bit more next week.
But there is also a second, less obvious way that the gospel of grace is present in this passage. And it’s back in the section with that double-edged blade. In the verses leading up to this section, the author has been talking about hardness of heart. A hardness of heart, a resistance to God, keeps us from responding to God’s call and bars us from accepting God’s grace. You might remember in the story of Moses that pharaoh suffers from a hardness of heart. Every time Moses asks him to let the Hebrew people go free, pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and he can’t respond to God’s movement. He says no to God, over and over, until it destroys him and his kingdom. It’s that kind of hardness of heart that effects us too, that makes us resistant God, unwilling to accept God’s movement in our lives.
But according to Hebrews, the blade of God’s word penetrates through to the heart. And it lays it bare. That is, it cuts away the hardness. God’s scalpel does not only expose, it also heals. It is not judgmental so much as it is therapeutic. It cuts away the hardness so that the heart can be responsive to God. It is, as Hebrews says, both living and effective. It is living, it brings life. It is effective, it cuts away our hardness of heart and opens us up to God.
The truth is, we all have parts of ourselves that we try to hide from the world. We have scar tissue built up around deep emotional wounds. Every mistake we have made, every poor choice, every person we have hurt, every resource we have wasted, every relationship we have harmed, every promise we have broken, every wrong we have done, and every good we have left undone. To protect ourselves, we try to keep them hidden. We try to lock them away. We try to make them disappear, but they don’t disappear. Our grief, our fear, our anxiety, our despair, our hopelessness, our anger, our wrath, our greed, our envy, our lust, our indifference… they don’t go away, even when we try to deny them, to hide them.
But we can’t hide them from God. God’s word pierces to the heart. It exposes the things we try to keep hidden. God sees every part of us. And seeing every part of us, even the ugly parts, God loves us. God forgives us. God embraces us, claims us, celebrates us. Even knowing the things we try to hide, God accepts us. The gospel of God’s grace is so profound that it cuts away any barrier we try to put between ourselves and God.
So profound is God’s acceptance of us, Hebrews says, that we don’t even need to fear entering the throne room of God, the holy of holies, the undefiled sanctuary. So profound is God’s acceptance of us that we can approach God’s throne, not with fear, not with uneasiness, not with anxiety—we can approach God’s throne with confidence. With confidence. So profound is God’s gospel of grace, that the law stops being an object of fear and becomes instead a focus for our love, a standard that we strain for, not out of fear of punishment, but out of love for God and God’s life-giving grace. We seek to be bound to God’s direction, because in being bound to God we are set free.
God’s word cuts straight to the heart, separating even soul from spirit, even life from breath. But it does not pierce us to wound. God’s word pierces us to heal, that being cured of our hardness of heart, we might be able to accept the full embrace of God’s love and grace. Thanks be to God.
See: Gene R. Smillie, “Ὁ λογος του θεου in Hebrews 4:12-13,” Novum Testamentum 46 (2004): 338-359.