There is no book in the New Testament that presents a more exalted view of Christ than the Letter to the Hebrews. Its opening verses, read every year at Christmas, present a stirring portrait of Jesus in all his divine majesty.
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:3-4)
Yet alongside this picture of Jesus in his glory is the paradoxical recognition that threads its way through the whole of the Bible: that this same Son of God, who shares fully in all the inexpressible splendor of the Father, must also suffer. That message hits us full force this morning, in our reading from the second chapter of the same letter: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” The author goes on to tell us how the eternal Son of God “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.”
The Letter to the Hebrews introduces us to Jesus in terms of high theology. Complementing that is the earthy account of Jesus that Mark gives us in his gospel. It is in Mark’s and the other evangelists’ accounts that we discover that all the doctrines about Jesus that the church has distilled through the centuries are based on concrete realities. There the dogmas that we reaffirm week by week in the creeds take on actual flesh and blood. There we see, in practical terms, what it meant for the Son of God to have become a human being like ourselves.
In this morning’s New Testament reading Hebrews describes Jesus as our merciful and faithful high priest. In the Gospel reading we see how that profound theological truth worked itself out in the context of ordinary, practical, everyday life. There Mark takes us into a simple Galilean home, the house of the two fisherman brothers, Andrew and Peter. We enter to find that Peter’s mother-in-law is in bed, suffering from a fever. Mark doesn’t tell us any more, whether it was a high fever or a low one, whether it had been going on for days or just begun. What we do know is that Peter and Andrew told Jesus about it, and he comes to her bedside. There he takes her hand, helps her up, and the next thing we know is that she is well again—well enough to have the energy to prepare and serve a meal to four hungry fishermen and their friend.
Even without Facebook or Twitter, it did not take long for news to spread around the community about the young teacher who had expelled an unclean spirit in the synagogue and healed an elderly woman of her fever. Before the sun had set, Andrew and Peter’s doorway was jammed with people suffering from every imaginable kind of complaint, all clamoring to see Jesus—and Mark tells us that there were many who went away cured. And while Mark doesn’t use the word, I believe that what we have here is a first glimpse of the compassion that moved within and constantly overflowed from the heart of Jesus.
In fact, just two verses after this morning’s passage, Mark uses exactly that word. Defying all the strict regulations that required him to keep his distance, a leper comes right up to Jesus, falls at his feet and pleads with him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Mark tells us, “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” “Moved with compassion”—we find those words being used of Jesus at numerous points in the gospel records. A widow is following her only son’s casket through the town of Nain, and Jesus, moved with compassion, calls the procession to stop and raises him to life (Luke 7:11-14). Jesus gets out of a boat on the shore of Lake Galilee to see that a great crowd has followed him from the nearby towns, and Matthew tells us that he had compassion on them and cured their sick (Matthew 14:13,14). Just outside Jericho, two blind men find out about Jesus and start shouting to gain his attention. Moved with compassion, Jesus touches their eyes and immediately they regain their sight (Matthew 20:29-34). In John’s gospel we encounter the scene of Jesus standing with Mary and Martha outside the sealed tomb of their brother Lazarus. John tells us that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). And we find that same compassion as in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prepares to confront all the evil that afflicts and enslaves us. “In his anguish” Luke tells us, “he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Atlanta preacher and homiletician Thomas Long comments,
When the gaze of the eternal Son of God encompasses a criminal on death row, when the glorified Son sees a homeless woman crawling into a cardboard box to keep from freezing in the night, when the Lord of all sees a man robbed of dignity and purpose by schizophrenia, when the divine heir of all things sees a mother weeping over the death of her child or a man battling the last savage assault of cancer or the swollen body of a child slowly starving to death, he does not see a charity case, a pitiful victim, or a hopeless cause. He sees a brother, he sees a sister, and he is not ashamed to call us his “brothers and sisters”. The Son of God does not wag his head at misery and cluck, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Instead he says, “There because of the grace of God I am.”
Jesus: the man of compassion. There is another picture of Jesus that Mark gives us this morning, however: not the public Jesus preaching in the synagogue and healing the sick. This time we meet the private Jesus, who while the sun has not yet stretched its rays over the eastern horizon, gets up, withdraws to a secluded spot where nobody is likely to be, and there he prays. Some time later, after the feeding of the five thousand, Mark again shows Jesus removing himself from his disciples and going off to a mountainside to pray (Mark 6:46).
It is in Luke’s gospel, however, that we are given the most complete account of Jesus’ life of prayer. There we find Jesus in prayer at almost every major event in his ministry. Jesus prays at his baptism. He prays before appointing the twelve apostles. He prays before asking the disciples the pivotal question, “Who do people say I am?” He is in prayer when he is transfigured before the disciples. He prays for Peter, that his faith will not fail. And he prays in Gethsemane the night before he is crucified. Indeed Luke tells us that it was Jesus’ habit to withdraw to deserted places and pray (Luke 5:16).
Jesus not only spent a great deal of time in prayer himself; he also taught his followers to pray: to pray in faith, to pray with simplicity, to pray with persistence, to pray with humility. If we are to take both the teaching and the example of Jesus seriously, then we know that our own spiritual lives must be built, like his, on the foundation of prayer—and (Warning: guilt alert!) as I say what I am about to say, it is with the painful awareness of how short my own prayer life falls from what God desires of me. It is that prayer—true prayer—takes time and it takes effort. William Wilberforce, the man who virtually single-handedly stopped the West African slave trade in Britain, once remarked, “The shortening of private devotions starves the soul. It grows lean and faint.” Nineteenth-century Methodist preacher E.M. Bounds wrote,
Spiritual work is taxing work, and men are loath to do it. Praying, true praying, costs an outlay of serious attention and of time, which flesh and blood do not relish. Few persons are made of such strong fiber that they will make a costly outlay when surface work will pass as well in the market. We can habituate ourselves to our beggarly praying until it looks well to us, at least it keeps up a decent form and quiets conscience—the deadliest of opiates! We can slight our praying, and not realize the peril till the foundations are gone. Hurried devotions make weak faith, feeble convictions, questionable piety. To be little with God is to be little for God. To cut short the praying makes the whole religious character short, scrimp, niggardly, and slovenly.
Aside from being president, Dwight Eisenhower is famous for making the very wise distinction between what is urgent and what is important. The idea is that what seems urgent is not necessarily important—and conversely the important things are not always urgent. Since then his principle has been turned into what is known as the Eisenhower Matrix. Picture a box containing four smaller boxes. In the upper left are tasks that are both urgent and important, things like finding a job, attending to your sick child, putting out the fire on the kitchen stove. In the lower right box are things that are neither urgent nor important. Here you might want to place distractions such as video games, Facebook or watching TV. Above it, in the upper right, are tasks that are urgent but may not be all that important. Think of things like the incessant ringing of the telephone or the emails that many of us are barraged with every day. Finally there are things that are important but don’t scream out at us as urgent—thoughtful planning, exercise, rest, family time, and not least, prayer. So often these are the things that receive the least attention in our lives. Yet Stephen Covey has observed in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that the people most likely to get things done, who actually accomplish something in life, are those who give more attention and spend more time in that fourth quadrant.
Jesus had his priorities right. He knew that he had to withdraw in order to engage. The time he spent in prayer did not remove him from the action; it prepared him for action. And so in the last little vignette that Mark gives us in the Gospel reading, what do we find Jesus doing? Moving forward vigorously to fulfill the mission that God had given him.
More years ago than I care to remember, I was involved in an evangelistic outreach on our university campus. I recall a large number of us gathering for prayer a day or so beforehand with our speaker, the Rev. David MacInnes. One of the things that I clearly remember him saying and that has stuck with me ever since is that whenever we pray, we need to be prepared to be part of God’s answer to that prayer.
The next step after prayer is to move ahead in faith and obedience. Yet I confess that more often than not, no sooner have I gotten up from my prayers than they have vanished from my consciousness. Maybe this is one reason why our prayer lives are so feeble. We fail to put the rubber to the road. We neglect to take that final but all-important step, to take our life of prayer into our lives in the world. I suspect that if we dared to live more like that, we would also find our prayer becoming deeper, more vibrant, more related to the realities of life. We would find ourselves truly engaged in the mission of Jesus.