Friday, April 03, 2015

Learned Obedience

Learned Obedience
Hebrews 5:5-10[1]
I realize you may find this really hard to believe, but when I was growing up, I was what you might call a “strong-willed child.” I know, it’s hard to fathom. But then, I would imagine there are some others in the room today who might have to make the same confession. Many of us come into this world with a strong sense of what we want, and how we want it. We can tend to think that we really do know what is right and best and perhaps even the steps we need to take to achieve that. And if someone else doubts us, we are likely to be more than willing to enlighten them about the error of their ways. Unfortunately, being “strong-willed” isn’t something we tend to “outgrow.”
And yet, life experience does have a way of mellowing many of us. We learn that trying to “make” things happen backfires as often as it succeeds—maybe more so. We watch our plans and dreams and ideas run up against the reality of life, and oftentimes the impact leaves our notions at least bruised if not completely broken. And after a few times of going through that process, we may begin to realize that, no matter how much will power we exert, there are some things you just can’t make happen. You can’t make someone love you. You can’t make a prospective employer hire you. You can’t control what other people do or say or who they choose to be.
I would say that our tendency to be strong-willed also affects our ability to learn how to relate to God. Faith and obedience are qualities that don’t just come naturally for many of us, myself included. They have to be learned. And oftentimes, the learning process can involve some hardships, some losses, and some suffering. Our Scripture lesson from the New Testament for today addresses this in a way that we might find surprising. In the letter to the Hebrews, the Scripture says that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). It seems shocking: why would Jesus need to “learn obedience”? Wasn’t his whole life, in fact his whole existence, one of obedience to God?[2] So why did he have to “learn obedience”?
I think the answer has to do with what happened when the Son of God became a human being. It’s not like he was inherently willful and disobedient and had to be taught by the consequences of his actions how to obey God. The very act of becoming a human being was an expression of his obedience to God. But I think what Jesus learned was a first-hand experience of what it means to suffer as a mortal being.[3] That wouldn’t have been a part of his experience as the Son of God who lived in the Father’s love from all eternity. He had to become one of us in order to experience the full meaning of our suffering.[4] And his willingness to undergo that, especially in the agony he suffered as he faced an excruciating death, was the ultimate expression of his obedience to God.[5]
While it’s not necessary to restrict what our Scripture lesson says to this one event,[6] it’s natural to think of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane.[7] I find it wonderfully reassuring that, when faced with one of the cruelest means of executing a person ever devised, Jesus asked God to deliver him from it! It’s hard to imagine Jesus being truly human and not facing the excruciating torture of the cross without feeling anguish and praying “with loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7).[8] And yet, the end result of his prayer struggle in that garden was that he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). [9] He squarely faced the ultimate suffering, and he pledged to obey God’s will. That’s obedience!
One of the main themes in the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus serves as an example for us all. He is the “pioneer and perfecter of the faith.” He marked out the path of the kind of obedience to God that trusts and surrenders to God’s will no matter what. And he finished the course by following through with his determination to obey God, even when it meant going through suffering that he would rather have avoided.[10] And in all of that, he set the example for us to follow. I think one of the reasons why the Scripture emphasizes his suffering here is so that we could know that his obedience was no play-acting. He experienced the same struggles and hardships that we do—and some would say he went through suffering most of us strain to even imagine. And yet, despite the suffering, he remained true to his course of obeying God.
Most of us don’t come into this world with the kind of determination to obey God that Jesus had. We buck our parents, we resist our teachers, and we ignore our spiritual leaders. Some of us here today still have the idea that we know what’s right and that others don’t have a clue about life. Those of us with a few years under our belt remember what that’s like, and also remember the experiences that taught us to take a humbler approach to life. It’s amazing how much we learn from the hardships and disappointments we go through. That’s something that never changes. And that’s where the kind of obedience that Jesus learned comes into play. If we can surrender our lives to God in the spirit of “not my will, but yours be done,” then perhaps the suffering of this life can become a learning experience for us as well. It can teach us that what we think we want may not always be in our best interest. It can teach us that the path of faith is one that trusts and obeys God’s will no matter what. Our experience in life can become a matter of continually learning obedience to God.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/22/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 153: “A fundamental affirmation of Hebrews is that Jesus was obedient to God’s will from the start of his earthly career (10:5–10). Thus, he can learn obedience only in the sense that he comes to appreciate fully what conformity to God’s will means. Because he has learned that lesson, he can be the sympathetic heavenly intercessor on whom the addressees can rely and, at the same time, a model for them in their attempt to be obedient to God’s will.”
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New Interpreters Bible XII:63, where he says, “being God’s Son did not exempt Jesus from learning, from obedience, from suffering, so complete was his identification with all who share flesh and blood.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:158: “the New Testament has treated the vere homo [truly human] so seriously that it has portrayed the obedience of Jesus throughout as a genuine struggle to obey, as a seeking and finding.”
[4] Cf. Thomas G. Long, “What God Wants,” The Christian Century (Mar 21, 2006):19: “No one can walk this human path in faith and obedience without encountering suffering.”
[5] Cf. Attridge, Hebrews, 152: “The force of the remark [that although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered] is that Jesus is not an ordinary son, who might indeed be expected to learn from suffering …, but the eternal Son. Suffering and death are not, however, incompatible with that status; they are, as Hebrews constantly emphasizes, an essential part of the Son’s salvific work.”
[6] Cf. Lewis F. Galloway, “Hebrews 4:14-5:10,” Interpretation 57 (July 2003):295: “the suffering of Jesus certainly included more than his final spiritual battle and agonizing death. Jesus suffered when religious leaders opposed him, his own family misunderstood him, and his friends betrayed and deserted him.”
[7] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1.264-72. Contrast Attridge, Hebrews, 148-50, where he is at great pains to argue that a connection with Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is “artificial and unnecessary.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 173-74 where he maintains that God actually abandons Jesus in the experience of the passion. He says that Jesus “suffered paradoxically from the prayer that was not heard, from his forsakenness by the Father.” Yet, Moltmann can also say in almost the same breath that the fact that Jesus “learned obedience” from what he suffered “means an inward conformity between the will of the surrendered Son and the surrendering will of the Father.” He leaves this apparent tension unresolved for the most part. There is quite a bit of variety in the answers to the question what it means when the text says that Jesus’ prayer “was heard.” See William L. Lane, Hebrews 1–8, 120.
[9] Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:270 insists that Jesus prayer “is not a kind of return of willingness to obey, which was finally forced upon Jesus and fulfilled by Him in the last hour; it is rather a readiness for the act of obedience which He had never compromised in His prayer.”
[10] Cf. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 121, where he presents an interesting take on the idea that Jesus “learned obedience.” He says, “From Scripture, and especially from the Psalms, Jesus learned that his passion was grounded in the saving will of God and could not be severed from his calling. Thus in the declaration that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered,” the term τὴν ὑπακοήν, ‘obedience,’ has a very specific meaning: it is obedience to the call to suffer death in accordance with the revealed will of God.” That Jesus took his cues about his mission from Scripture is clear. But I’m not sure I would see quite such a specific background to this passage saying that Jesus “learned obedience”; after all it says that it was from “what he suffered” that he learned this obedience.

No comments: