Monday, November 02, 2015

Throne of Grace

Throne of Grace
Hebrews 4:12-16[1]
We listen to a lot of voices these days. In this “information age” of ours, I think we can often feel overwhelmed by the different messages put out there 24/7. It’s hard to know what to listen to and what to believe. I think that all the voices at odds with each other these days makes it hard for us to listen very carefully to any one voice. That includes the voice of God speaking through Scripture. With so many other voices out there demanding our attention, it becomes easy to let the voice of God slip into the background, and eventually to lose any ability to influence our lives. I realize I may be in danger of preaching to the choir here, but please notice that I’m speaking of “us” and not “you.”
I think one reason why the Scriptures are losing their influence on us is because of what we expect to hear when we try to listen for God’s voice speaking to us. I think many of us avoid the Scriptures because we assume that the message we’re going to receive is one of condemnation. It’s as if we think of the voice of God as the voice of a critical parent, always telling us that what we’re doing is not good enough. That is the way the message of the Scriptures has been presented in some circles, and I’m afraid its effect on us is as strong as ever. But I would say that our Scripture lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews for today points us in a different direction.
Make no mistake: our lesson for today presents the voice of God in Scripture as powerful.[2] And that can create a fear of allowing our lives to be exposed to its influence. Not many of us feel comfortable with something that can reveal the face we prefer not to present to the people around us. It can be disturbing to hear that “the word that God speaks … strikes through to the place where soul and spirit meet, … it exposes the very thoughts and motives of a man’s heart” (Heb. 4:12, Phillips). Most of us don’t like feeling so exposed; we’d much rather keep our inner secrets hidden and keep up our appearances than be “laid bare” by the voice of God speaking in Scripture.
But I think part of our problem here is with our image of this God who exposes our hearts and minds and souls with his powerful voice. One who has that much power over us can tend to make us afraid. And, unfortunately I would say that for centuries we have viewed God as someone to stay away from, someone who is dangerous so you don’t want to get too close. We may speak of God as a God of grace and love and compassion, but when it comes right down to it, we’re not sure about a God who seemingly favors some and rejects others.  Or a God who supposedly sends earthquakes and tsunamis and floods and tornadoes to punish people! That’s a God we’d rather avoid!
I think part of our problem is that we have a hard time understanding how God can be both exalted and powerful on the one hand, and on the other hand also be caring and compassionate. We struggle with a God who is both majestic and merciful. I find it interesting that our Scripture lesson deals with this problem by referring to God in terms of approaching “the throne of grace.” There are many ways that the writers of Scripture refer to God indirectly like this, but I find this to be one of the more fascinating examples.
On the one hand, clearly God is depicted as one who exercises authority and power from a “throne.” This points to what we call the sovereignty of God. It is the language of a King who rules, which is language I’m not sure we relate to very well. But the Bible consistently portrays God as the one who reigns over the entire created order, over all the nations, and over our lives. Despite the claims of human leaders, the Bible reminds us that power ultimately resides with God. Even though it may seem that his rule is hidden in the midst of those who wield such obvious influence over our lives, the Bible insists nevertheless that God reigns.[3]
And yet on the other hand, the Scripture lesson speaks of God’s throne as a “throne of grace.” We assume that those who reign over us do so with an iron fist. But the Scriptures tells us about a very different God: a God who empathizes with our struggles and sympathizes with our plight, a God who shares our pain and our suffering.[4] And we see that image of God reflected most clearly in Jesus, who in his capacity as our redeemer “understands our weaknesses” because he “faced all of the same temptations as we do” (Heb 4:15, NLT).[5] The image of God revealed by Jesus Christ, the crucified savior, is one of sympathy, caring, and understanding. It is a God who is intimately involved with us and who cares deeply about us.[6]  And for this reason, our Scripture lesson today invites us to turn in our time of need to the “throne of grace,” confident that when we do so we will find compassion and mercy to help us.[7]
This combination of a God of exalted power and a God who knows intimately all of our struggles and cares deeply about every one of us is the view of God that permeates the Scriptures. One of my favorite verses puts it this way: “I live on high, in holiness, and also with the crushed and the lowly, reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of those who have been crushed” (Isa. 57:15, CEB).[8] Yes, God is powerful beyond our imagination. But God is also more kind and loving than we can comprehend.[9] And because this is the God who speaks to us in Scripture, he invites us to bring all that we are—our triumphs and our tragedies—to him as we approach the “throne of grace,” confident that when we do, he will welcome us with open arms.

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/11/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. An audio version of this sermon is available at
[2] Cf. Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 61: “The word of God takes an ordinary day and makes it ‘today,’ takes an ordinary moment and makes it the time of crisis and decision, takes a routine event and makes it the theater of the glory of God, takes an ordinary life and calls it to holiness. … The living and active word of God refreshes hope and restores confidence. The word of God turns wandering human beings into principal actors in the magnificent story of divine redemption, … .”
[3] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 59 reminds us of the setting of the letter to the Hebrews in connection with this theme: “Even now, as Christians struggle to be faithful in the midst of ambiguity and turmoil, the promise is that all of this counts, that their faithful actions are being gathered into God’s everlasting purposes. In ways that are mysterious and beyond our full knowing, God uses the prayers and deeds of ordinary people of faith to redeem the whole creation.”
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 38: “A God who cannot suffer cannot love either. A God who cannot love is a dead God. … The living God is the loving God. The loving God shows that he is a living God through his suffering.”
[5] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 64, where he says that the Preacher affirms “that Jesus experienced the full ambiguity and uncertainty, the weakness and the vulnerability, the temptations and the sufferings of life without compromising his humanity, ….”
[6] Cf. William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, 14-21, where he points out that the story of Jesus most clearly reveals the true nature of God. He says, (p. 15), “in this story God is most God, for in coming vulnerably into creation God is not giving up the characteristics of divinity but most fully manifesting them.” He continues (p. 16) by suggesting that in the Gospel narratives “we encounter a God defined by perfect love and perfect freedom. Love means a willingness to take risks, to care for the other in a way that causes the other’s fate to affect one’s own, to give to the other at real cost to oneself, to chance rejection.”  He says further (p. 19), “God’s power is the power of love. … in freely loving, God is most of all who God is, most exemplifying the kind of power God has.” He concludes, “Only a God ‘weak in power but strong in love’ can be strong enough to take on all the world’s pain and die on the cross.” He borrows the phrase “weak in power but strong in love” from Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator, 27. Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:159: “God shows himself to be the great and true God in the fact that He can and will let His grace bear this cost, that He is capable and willing and ready for this condescension, this act of extravagance, this far journey. What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this. … the gods are a reflection of human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty He is humble. It is in this high humility that He speaks and acts as the God who reconciles the world to himself.”
[7] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 63, where he points out that, in one respect, the “Preacher” of Hebrews is seeking to revitalize the disheartened Christians’ prayer. He says, “The Preacher wants them to move past fearful prayers, tidy prayers, formal and distant prayers toward a way of praying that storms the gates of heaven with honest and heartfelt cries of human need. He does not want them to pray like bureaucrats seeking a permit but like children who cry out in the night with their fears, trusting that they will be heard and comforted.”
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.1:477, where he says that “the lesson of Isaiah 57:15” is that “Ultimately and decisively” God’s presence among his people “is not fearful. On the contrary, it is comforting, because God in His love and for His love’s sake is present to everything and everywhere.”
[9] Long, Hebrews, 64, points out why it is important to try to grasp the biblical view of God: “confident prayer is not merely a matter of technique. Ultimately, bold prayer is an expression of theological trust: the practice of prayer rests on what we believe about God and God’s relationship to us.”

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