15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.
I see Jesus there, in the wilderness, led out by the Spirit, battling all alone. I like the way Tissot painted it (his was the art on our Transfiguration bulletin; we’ll see more in Holy Week)… Jesus is there in the shadows up against the wall looking back at a wiry old man cross-legged on the floor just inside the mouth of the cave, dark against the white-hot, desert vista beyond. The man is holding up two stones – they’re tempting. They’d make good loaves of crusty bread. Jesus is hungry. And he is the Son of God. But he doesn’t do it. Doesn’t tweak a rock molecule or bend his will. He’s sustained by the living Word of God – more satisfying than warm bread, more toothsome than a good crust. He wins this skirmish with the devil.
Part of me always thinks in this moment, “It was just bread though…” Except, that small little concession is kind of a major indicator of our problem tonight. That would be the sort of question we’d ask: “Could it be that bad? A glutinous proof of god-hood; just a bit of warm bread? Who doesn’t love the smell of fresh-baked bread anyway (I’ve always assumed my power to turn rock into rye would be a baking process; Phil’s miraculous easy-bake oven)… I mean, they certainly wouldn’t be just cold loaves. And no mushy white bread either. I’m talking that kind of crusty bread where you have to tear it open; it actually makes a ripping sound – like a bread zipper; and then it just steams… And not one, but two loaves, because if you’re gonna go into a gluten coma you might as well own it. So…zap! Bread…” See? I’ve thought it through. And I probably would have thought it through then… But Jesus? No worrying it over. Didn’t whip out his iPhone, peddle through Pinterest for some loaf-spiration. No question. No wondering. Just what’s written – sola Scriptura. Because the Word of God alone is living and active – it exposes sin and the tempter (Hebrews 4:12-13). And Jesus is faithful, perfectly so, gloriously so (3:3, 6). No wonder the writer of Hebrews just before our section tonight proclaimed, “we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God.” He parted the curtain between this sin-broken place and God’s heaven and walked right in to God’s holy of holies like he belongs there – because he does belong where there is no sin, where it’s all glory, where there’s just God.
And that makes me wonder, “Does he belong with the likes of me?” Forget bakery, I’ve dreamt about much worse. I’ve done much worse. You have too. The guilt of sins stains me, blood and bruises and broken bones from skirmishes on the battlefield – some I won, many I lost. How many times haven’t you found yourself spiritually beaten, bruised, bloody – bested one more time as you’ve battled temptation? And in fact, I limp with this old wound – forget wondering, sometimes I worry that a perfect, glorious warrior who can pass into heaven won’t want anything to do with me who is stuck down here.
Especially when the writer of Hebrews had just urged his readers in chapters 3 and 4 to hold on to faith in Jesus. He warns: Jesus has won eternal rest with God. So don’t harden your hearts like Israel of old! Don’t stop listening to God, because only some will enter that rest – not everyone. God’s sword-sharp Word will judge the desires of our hearts too. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” That means, God’s seen my sins. The ones I’ve tried to hide he sees. The ones you think no one knows about, God knows. He’s seen me battle with good will to enter that heavenly rest and then fail and fall into hatred and anger at a mere sour look from someone. He’s seen you become discouraged when your faith was pressed by the skeptic. He saw you give up and throw down the sword of the Spirit and chuck off the helmet of salvation – petulant and tired. Weaknesses? I have ’em. So do you. So, naturally the fear is, since Jesus is so powerfully great, maybe he can’t sympathize with us who are so consistently weak.
Pastor Mike Novotny of Time of Grace, talks about this thing in his book, “3 Words That Will Change Your Life”. I won’t share with you the three words, but one of the great fears he notes is this: Sometimes we misread God’s life changing Word to say, “that GOD is present but only over there… We assume that a GOD [so perfect] would not want to hang around people like us.” (14) Perhaps a warrior like Jesus too? Not that he’s here with me or you but a warrior “over there…”, “up there…”, “far from here”, “far from you”?
To this skirmish, the writer of Hebrews brings the warrior tonight. In this way – he urges you and me to hold fast to our faith in God through Jesus Christ – why? “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.
Do not be afraid to hold on, to battle, to fall, when you fail – for we don’t have a warrior who is over there and who doesn’t understand. We have a high priest – someone who serves between us and God – who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. “Sympathize” implies that he does understand our experience. More, he suffers with us. He joins us in our suffering and suffers what we suffer. He has…
Look at him tonight in our Passion History. There he kneels in Gethsemane and prays. And though he is ardent, fervent, and faithful in doing God’s will, he knows the temptation of doing something else. He knows the appeal of satisfying self, of seeking another way. You know he does, because he prays about it for himself. And because he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” He’s familiar with weakness, our suffering; when he comes back at the last, they’re still sleeping, still weak. And then Judas arrives. That betrayer left God’s will to do his own, to win some cash at the expense of the life of his friend. Look at Jesus there. He stands and calls his betrayer his friend. He warns off the weakness of his disciple’s anger. He submits to the soldier band, though he could call down angel destruction from above.
Jesus knows weakness. The writer’s right, he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are”. He joins us in our suffering. He is able to sympathize with us. But mark this difference. Sometimes we pastors sit in the hospital with you and we sympathize. I know what it’s like to listen to a doctor say devastating things about your child. I’ve watched a parent cry when the other one died. We know the lust that tempts you and the fears you can’t shake and the dissatisfaction when things don’t go your way. We too understand the broken, sinful world and are broken by it ourselves. We sometimes say, “Yes, that is terrible…and I don’t have a solution for that…” Not a human one, anyway. Not a fix where all this won’t keep happening. We say, “I’m in it with you… I sympathize.”
You understand, don’t you, that the writer of Hebrews is saying more? …far more? Jesus sympathizes. Jesus was tempted. But he isn’t broken too. He doesn’t just say, “Hey man, I get it. I fail like that too…” This is his label: “one tempted – but in all things, in the same way, without sin”. Jesus is the sinless one. He has no sin in himself. Jesus did not become sinless through all his suffering but was without sin in all his suffering. That has serious implications: 1) In his daily life, he conquered in this way: he took all the sin but was never overtaken by it; it didn’t poison him in his dealings with sinful humanity, like it does us – he remained perfect. 2) It also means that he battled willingly. Just think: since he is without sin, he intimately understands that the guilt is ours and not his, but when he suffers with us and for us he willingly makes that guilt his own. He took on our sin to take it away from us (9:26, 28). No one else can exercise that kind of sympathy in suffering! Jesus sympathizes with us in the only way that actually provides a solution – that opens a way to the heavenly father.
Back in chapter 2, the writer also put it this way: “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (2:17-18). And we will be tempted . It’s a struggle to be faithful. We’re in a war for our souls. And all of us have lost many conflicts. But our great hero has not left us alone to face the temptations and trials of our enemy. He promises to protect us and rule over all things—Satan included—for our good. When we face temptation, he has our back. “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Tonight, as we behold our warrior again, this is our confidence… When we are hurting, Jesus knows what we feel like. When we have problems, Jesus has experienced all kinds of them. When we are tempted, he was too. So we can know that he is not some God “over there”. He is one of us. And he cares! By offering the sacrifice of his perfect life on your behalf, God has forgiven all your sins, including every single time you have ever failed in temptation. Jesus sympathizes in the best way – he’s replaced your losses and mine with his win, he gives you and me strength through his powerful Spirit for our weakness. And he invites us to call on him as we battle here below, because he intercedes on our behalf with God above…
That’s why we can sing these words from “What A Friend We Have in Jesus”:
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged,
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness,
take it to the Lord in prayer. Amen.