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Lent 5, “We Have a Sympathetic Savior”

Pastor Gary Wong, March 21, 2021

Hebrews 4:14-16

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest, who has gone through the heavens, namely, Jesus the Son of God, let us continue to hold on to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin. 16 So let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

One of the men I really admired was Mr. Pratt, my high school metal shop teacher. He was a skilled craftsman; yet his expertise was only a part of what made him a great teacher. The life experiences he brought to his teaching helped make him a great role model. Mr. Pratt was an orphan. This blue-eyed blonde Swede was raised by a Chinese couple in front of whose laundry he had been left. His adoptive parents scrimped and saved to send him to a trade school. You could also say that he graduated from the school of hard knocks. Though outwardly gruff, Mr. Pratt had the heart of a teddy bear. He truly cared for his students, and they knew it. He especially had a soft spot for students who were going through tough situations. He always took time to listen, console and encourage, both in class and after school. In Mr. Pratt, we knew that we had a sympathetic advocate and a friend who always had our backs.

In today’s lesson, we are reminded that in Jesus, we have a sympathetic Savior. Many of you know that the letter to the Hebrews was written primarily to Jews who had converted to Christianity. Imagine that you are a Jew living in the time of the apostles. You can proudly trace your family tree all the way back to Abraham. Your heritage includes God’s Law and the prophets. God also promised that the Messiah would come from the Jews. Untold generations of your family had clung to this promise even as they strove to keep God’s commandments. Unfortunately, no one, including you, is able to keep the law perfectly. So, what do you do? Following the ceremonial law, you bring a lamb to the priests who sacrifice it at the temple to atone for your sin. Sadly, there is a never-ending demand for animals because you keep on sinning. After bringing countless sacrifices, you are tempted to give up; yet you hold on to God’s promise, praying that the Lord will send a Savior who will pay for your sins once and for all.

Then you find out that your prayer has been answered! A friend shares the life-changing news that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah! Jesus perfectly fit all of the prophecies about the Savior recorded in the Scriptures. For instance, his stepfather, Joseph, and his mother, Mary, were both from the house and line of David. Mary was the virgin foretold by Isaiah who gave birth to her firstborn in Bethlehem. You can go all the way down the line from his humble birth to his suffering and death, his resurrection on the third day, and his ascension to heaven to see that Jesus is the fulfillment of every prophecy concerning the Savior. The Holy Spirit then created faith in your heart through the Word that had been shared with you. You now believe that Jesus Christ is your Savior and that you are completely forgiven through faith in him. You are also firmly convinced and excited that Jesus will come back from heaven one day and will bring you and all believers to eternal glory.

From the moment you first believed, your perspective about the world and your purpose in life were forever changed. You now realize that this earth is merely your temporary dwelling place; heaven is your home. While the prospect of future glory in heaven is exhilarating, you also realize that you aren’t there yet. Your faith in Jesus has transformed your life, yet your life here on earth doesn’t seem all that different. You still have to work hard. You still have to deal with sickness and death. You are still living under the heavy hand of Rome with its burdensome taxes and regulations on religion. Now, Jews could still freely practice their religion under Roman law; Christianity, however, was a new sect that was looked upon with suspicion. Jesus said that the world would hate you because of him. Jesus warned, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20). When you think about what Jesus said, it’s tempting to go back to your religious roots to avoid the persecution that was starting to come. Pressure was also coming from some of your religious leaders who wrongly insist that you still have to follow the ceremonial law.

Concern that his fellow Jewish converts would renounce Christ and go back to their old ways prompted the author to write this letter to the Hebrews. This caring Christian shared these words of encouragement: “Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess” (Heb. 4:14). So, on what are we to have a firm grip and never let go? We are to hold firmly to our faith in Jesus. Jesus is our Rock, our foundation, and our anchor. The writer of Hebrews gives us two reasons to hold on to Jesus. He makes his first point by talking about a subject with which you, as a Jew, are very familiar—he talks about the priesthood. You know that since the time of Moses, worship centered on the person and work of the priest. The author begins by boldly declaring that Jesus is our “our great high priest.” In so many words, the writer is basically challenging you: “If you think that going back to Judaism is better than having faith in Jesus, let’s compare Jesus to the high priest. The high priest is the one who represented the people before God, offering up prayers and sacrifices for the people on their behalf. He was the only one who could pass through the curtain from the Holy Place into the Most Holy Place. Yet, even the high priest had to make payment for his sins before he could be in the presence of God. The blood he then sprinkled on the cover of the Ark paid for the sins of all people. That sounds great—until you realize that he had to make the same sacrifices year after year after year.

What about Jesus? Jesus is greater than any human priest. The author of Hebrews can rightly say that Jesus is our great high priest because Jesus is the Son of God; Jesus is holy and perfect. Since Jesus is without sin, he did not have to offer a sacrifice for himself. Rather, Jesus has unfettered access to God. What’s more, Jesus did not offer the blood of an animal to atone for our sins; he paid for our sins with his precious blood he shed on the cross. Human high priests had to offer their sacrifices year after year on the great Day of Atonement. What about Jesus? The Bible says that Jesus “sacrificed for [our] sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb. 7:27). The choice is obvious; who would choose a human high priest who, according to the Bible, is “weak”, over Jesus, the perfect priest who made the perfect sacrifice that restores our relationship with God and gives us true, lasting peace?

If that isn’t enough to convince you to firmly hold on to your faith in Jesus, the holy writer gives us a second reason. He again focuses on the priesthood. Now, a human high priest could perform his duties flawlessly and yet do them in an impersonal way. Think about it. The priests served countless people. It would be impossible for a priest to get to know everyone who was bringing a sacrifice to him. He couldn’t possibly understand their problems; worse yet, he might not care. The priest might look at you as just another anonymous face in a sea of anonymous faces. You get in line and then hand over your animal when it’s your turn. The priest doesn’t have time to listen to you and find out what’s really bothering you. At times, it might seem as though he’s just going through the motions and simply wants to move on to the next person.

What about Jesus? Jesus is the complete opposite of an uncaring priest. God’s Word tells us that in Jesus, we “have a high priest who is …able to sympathize with our weaknesses” (v.15). He reminds you that Jesus is like us in every way. Jesus felt cold and heat, pain and suffering. He had the full range of human emotions. Jesus felt real hunger when he was in the wilderness without food for forty days. He shed real tears at the grave of his friend, Lazarus. Jesus was familiar with all the physical infirmities and weaknesses we have. More than that, Jesus knew what it was like to be tempted to sin. His temptations were common to all people. The devil tempted Jesus to doubt God and his Word and to love himself more than he loved God. Not only were Jesus’ temptations real, the consequences of giving in to them would have been catastrophic. One slipup would mean that all mankind would remain under the curse of death forever. The good news is that Jesus is not like any high priest or ordinary human being. Jesus is without sin. He successfully resisted the devil and won the victory over sin and death with his death on the cross. Why did he do it? Jesus didn’t do it for himself; he did it for you and me. Jesus suffered and died because he had compassion for all people and was moved by his love to free us from the consequences of our sin.

What does it mean to us that we have a Savior who is sympathetic to us? It means everything! Jesus knows all of our troubles and all of the heartaches we are experiencing. Jesus has been through it all and more. He knows what it is like to be tempted, and he knows what kind of strength it takes to resist those temptations. Because of his love, Jesus gives us his strength. We are not fighting our battles alone. Jesus is right alongside us. When we are feeling overwhelmed, the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that we can “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (v.16). Because of Jesus, we have every reason to be bold when we pray to the Lord. By his perfect life and innocent death, Jesus has torn down the curtain of sin that had separated us from God. We now have direct and immediate access to our heavenly Father. Because of Jesus, God hears and answers our prayers. What’s more, Jesus is seated at God’s right hand, interceding with his Father on our behalf.

Jesus has been there and done everything necessary for our salvation. Since we have a sympathetic Savior, we call on our Father with confidence, knowing that we will find God’s mercy and receive his grace. In Jesus, we have a sympathetic advocate and friend who always has our backs. Praise God for our sympathetic Savior. Amen.

“Rise to Arms! With Prayer Employ You” (CW 455)

Text: Wilhelm E. Arends, 1677-1721, abr.; tr. John M. Sloan, 1835 – after 1890, alt.

Rise! To arms! With prayer employ you,

O Christians, lest the foe destroy you,

For Satan has designed your fall.

Wield God’s Word, a weapon glorious;

Against each foe you’ll be victorious;

Our God will set you o’er them all.

Fear not the prince of hell__

Here is Immanuel!

Sing hosanna!

The strong ones yield

To Christ, our shield,

And we as conqu’ers hold the field.

Jesus, all your children cherish,

And keep them that they never perish

Whom you have purchased with your blood.

Let new life to us be given

That we may look to you in heaven

Whenever fearful is our mood.

Your Spirit on us pour

That we may love you more,

Hearts o’erflowing;

And then shall we,

From sin set free,

Sing praise through all eternity.

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