Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I suppose, when we think about it, most of us really prefer the idea of a god who is big and powerful, one who can zap his enemies at the twitch of a finger and above all, one who can sort things out. This idea of a powerful god is very old, going right back to earliest paganism, and it features strongly in the early story of Israel’s ideas of God. Clearly, even though the disciples had had numerous indications to the contrary in the life and doings of Jesus. (Mark 10:35-45) When it came to the crunch they too actually preferred the old ways and notions. The incident Mark refers to follows immediately on Jesus third prediction of his passion, death and resurrection; but rather than focus on it, just as they did on the two previous occasions when he predicts his passion and death, the disciples talk about their own futures in relation to Jesus, and completely ignore all that difficult stuff about the suffering and death of their beloved leader. It appears that Jesus’ teaching that his way – and in consequence theirs too must lie in service, slavery and suffering, fell on deaf ears. I suspect that for most of us this is how we see things too. Gods who are powerful and demand our total obedience can in some ways be very attractive, not the least because they quite literally ‘pull all the strings’ and whilst depriving us of any responsibility for the way things are, they can also be blamed when things go wrong. In the end we are off the hook, we played no part, or only a very minor role in the situation, and it’s all someone else’s fault.
By the time of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC Jewish writers like Second Isaiah, (Isa 53:10-11) and even the earlier writers of this school, were beginning to explore the nature of the relationship between God and humanity. Indeed, they asked penetrating questions about the nature of God himself. First Isaiah spoke of the relationship between God and Israel as one of passion, love and broken faith which had to be punished. Second Isaiah speaks of the nation, Israel, as personified in the figure of a servant, who willingly suffers in atonement for the sin of his people. In a series of lyric poems of astonishing beauty and pain, the writer will explore the nature of the sufferings endured by the ‘Servant’ on behalf of the nation, in the course of which we witness a great sea change in the relationship existing between God and humanity. Here no longer is there a yawning void separating God and man, but a closeness, a real relationship and caring, in which we learn as much about God as we do about the people in need of redemption. Christianity indeed, has become so enamoured by these poems that we see them as expressions of the suffering of Jesus himself, and the long poem of which our reading is the conclusion is the set reading, along with the Passion, for Good Friday. But in their original form, the poems are a reflection on what God really wants the relationship between himself and us to be like; it is of the self-offering of the Servant, who willingly gives himself over to suffering to become the victim who will wipe out the sins of his fellow men and women and make them holy, fit for God’s presence. Somehow, the relationship has altered, and we see that we are destined for a much closer intimacy with God.
Such a vision of God however always continues to separate God from his creation however strong the longing God has for faithless Israel. But by the genius of the Incarnation, we come to see that God’s way of dealing with us has massively changed. Now no longer does someone else suffer to atone for our sins, but, by the act of the Son of God becoming human, he himself can suffer and – the unthinkable – die for the creatures he loves. This is what our portion of the Letter to the Hebrews (4:14-16) explores. In the time of Jesus, the High Priest, the effective ruler of the temple in Jerusalem was a very powerful political and social figure. The high priesthood had by that time become the prerogative of two ruling Sadducean families who intermarried to hold onto power. They ruled not simply the religious affairs of the temple and Jewish thinking, but, as the temple was the great symbolic heart of the nation; its treasury, its banking house and the temple, occupied over a quarter of the city. We can sense their all encompassing power. The ruling high priestly family controlled the temple police and all its major religious festivals. One can imagine just how remote they had become from ordinary Judaism.
The writer of Hebrews therefore speaks of Jesus as “The supreme high priest’ deliberately to distinguish him from this high priestly clan which had held such power, and which had of course been responsible for the arrest and conviction and sentencing to death of Jesus. They are cast as the epitome of worldliness and profanity, corrupt, earthbound, un-interested in ordinary people and far removed from them. But he says that Jesus is the supreme or only real high priest, and by his nature as Son of God has access to heaven itself. But Jesus is also the one who by his perfect or sinless human nature can bring us before God the Father in the confidence that we will be given a merciful judgment – in contrast to the mercilessness of the temple high priests. The contrast is drawn out – the old temple high priests are charged with being incapable of identifying or sympathising with human weakness, whereas Jesus precisely takes this on in the Incarnation. What a change! Here it is the human high priests who have lost their humanity and become cut off, remote; and it is Jesus, the Son of God, now no longer remote God but utterly vulnerable and fragile, who identifies totally with us and will even die to draw us ever closer to the heart of God himself. He is the virginally pure one (parthenos in Greek, sympathetic in the Jerusalem Bible) so totally open to the will of God the Father and complete in his unity with us and our needs. The shift in the God-man relationship is dramatic and unprecedented. God who is vulnerable, open to us at our worst and our best, God and man, one at last. In Jesus the Son our access to divine grace is made manifest and moreover utterly certain. God is completely open to humanity, welcoming and wanting us.