Without Precedent! (Second Sunday of Lent)

Hebrews 1:10-2:3; Mark 2:1-12; Psalm 101 (102 MT), Daniel 7.

More than twenty years ago, when I was fairly new to teaching, I had one year in which I cobbled together four lectureships at different institutions.  Each of them had a different character—one was secular, one was evangelical, one was a liberal arts college run mostly by Anglicans, and one was Catholic. In the latter, I met, for the first time, some Orthodox Christians who were taking a course on the Old Testament with me, because that Catholic college had an Eastern Christian studies program. During one of our class discussions, one of the students suggested that there was a difference between the typical Western understanding of the LORD in the Old Testament and that of the Orthodox fathers. Generally the Western Church understood the God of the OT as either the Father, or the as-yet unidentified Trinity.  But the East, following St. Paul’s lead in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, understood the LORD (KYRIOS, YHWH) as the Second person of the Trinity, speaking incognito. (Remember how St. Paul says that we are monotheists, and that “for us there is one God, from whom are all things and one LORD, through whom are all things?”)

It was dizzying for me.  Suddenly as I looked back on the references to the LORD in the OT, I felt as though I had been stood on my head, and asked to look at something from a completely new perspective.  It was fascinating!  Of course, it is not simply St. Paul who saw the LORD of the Old Testament as God the Son, the One who speaks to us.  There is also the gospel of John (“without Him was not anything made that was made.”) And there is our reading from the epistle today, Hebrews 1: 8, 10-2:3.  The apostle has spoken about all the ways that God has spoken to Israel in the past, but then suggests that NOW, with Jesus, something absolutely new has happened.  It is a surprise without precedent!

But of the Son, God says …“In the beginning, Thou, O Lord, didst found the earth, and the heavens are the work of Thy hands; they will perish, but Thou remainest; they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle Thou wilt roll them up, and they will be changed. But Thou art the same, and Thy years will never end.” But to what angel has He ever said, “Sit at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies a stool for thy feet”? Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation? Therefore, we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the message, declared by angels, was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard Him.

If we take this passage in context, we can see that it is arguing that Jesus is not simply a human being commissioned by the Almighty, but One whom the Father recognizes as God, one whom the Father has recognized in mutual authority over the earth.  In order to show this, the epistle quotes from several Psalms, including the messianic Psalms 2, 44 (MT 45) and 8, where language used of God’s Messiah suggests that he is indeed LORD, divine.  Our passage continues in this train of thought, quoting from Psalm 101 (MT 102):  “In the beginning, Thou didst form the earth and heavens…they will grow old, but thou art the same.” What is a bit confusing, however, is that the other psalms quoted in Hebrews 1 speak of God’s victory and majesty. Psalm 101, in contrast, fastens upon the frailty of humanity, and our need.  Its very title says, “A prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the LORD.” And it begins with the well-known petition, “Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to thee!” The Psalm then goes on to use the language of desolation (and of affliction in the desert) that we associate with the exile of Israel, but also with the great passion of our Lord himself.   The Psalmist cries out.  Then, knowing that he is heard, he finally says,

Let this be written for another generation; and the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord.

For he has looked out from the height of his sanctuary; the Lord looked upon the earth from heaven; to hear the groaning of the fettered ones, to loosen the sons of the slain; to proclaim the name of the Lord in Sion, and his praise in Jerusalem; when the people are gathered together, and the kings, to serve the Lord.

He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days. Take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are through all generations.

In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands.

They shall perish, but thou remainest: and they all shall wax old as a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them, and they shall be changed.

But thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.

The children of thy servants shall dwell securely, and their seed shall prosper for ever.  (Psalm 101/22:18-28)

This is a bit odd! Isn’t the apostle a little confused in who is speaking to whom? The afflicted one cries out to the Lord, and ends confidently by saying that God is merciful, and that He considers the need of those who are not immortal, like He is.  The cosmos will pass away, but the LORD remains the same; God’s people may be in chains, but he will release them, so that they may dwell securely and praise him.  The most obvious reading would see the psalms as describing an afflicted human being speaking to GOD, giving a a witness for generations to come, that they may praise the LORD as one who rescues.  But the writer to the Hebrew says that God, speaking about Jesus the Lord, is describing Him as the unchanging LORD, who laid the foundation of the earth, whose hands made the heavens.  This may not have been immediately apparent in our actual epistle reading, which begins in verse 10.  But verse 10 continues the string of references to the Psalms, which began in verse 8, where we are told, “About the Son, God says….”  So, the letter to the Hebrews interprets Psalm 101 as the Father referring to THE SON:  it is the Son, who with the Father laid the foundation of the earth and hung up the heavens.  It is the Son, along with the Father, who remains the same, and who is immortal.  It is the SON, along with the Father, who looks down on Zion, on God’s people in distress, and answers their call.

Yes, indeed.  For our God is not simply One who hears from afar.  He is the one who entered into the womb of the Theotokos, as we have remembered this week.  He made her womb a throne, and her body more spacious than the heavens. He enters into this world of death and sin in order to break it open from the inside and redeem it.  It is the Son who took upon himself the worst that this world can offer—he is the One, to use the language earlier in Psalm 101, whose bones groaned along with his people, who was like a vulture in the wilderness with them, who was more alone than any one of us has been, whose enemies taunted and cursed him, who mingled tears with drink, who took upon himself indignation and anger.  And it was in the Son that the God arose and had pity on Zion (as the Psalm goes on); it was the Son who knew that the appointed time had come, who appeared in glory—the glory first of the cross, but then of the resurrection and ascension.  How appropriate it is that the apostle should see Jesus the Lord not only in the suffering lament of Psalm 101 but also in the rescuing, nurturing actions of the LORD!  For it is by his suffering that we are rescued. The same Lord who enters our world to receive the worst that it can give is the One who created it. As we marvel on Holy Friday,

Today is suspended on a tree He who suspended the earth upon the waters.

The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.

He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.

He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.

The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.

The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.

We adore Thy passion, O Christ.

We adore Thy passion, O Christ.

We adore Thy passion, O Christ.

Show us also Thy glorious resurrection.

As the apostle goes on in his second chapter to tell us, “We see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one” (Heb 2:8). This Lord Jesus who suffered is no mere angel, as our confused friends, the Jehovah Witnesses, might think.  (What a shame that they don’t seem to know about Arius, who was likewise confused!)  He is the One who ascended on high to sit on the throne with the Father.  He is the One who from the beginning created with the Father.  And He is the One who plumbed the depths of hades, to rescue those whom He loved. As the apostle reminds us, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?”  Even those who ignored the Torah, given to Israel by the angels, were in danger.  But we have been given more—we have been given God’s very own self, his own presence among us, the very Holy Spirit.  The One who has done all this is God the Son himself, not merely an angel! Not up in a mountain obscured by clouds, where ordinary human beings could not see the giving of the gift (as when Moses received the law), but in history, among many witnesses, did the Lord Jesus come, and act and speak.  The salvation was declared, indeed, enacted by God himself in our midst, and “attested to us by those who heard Him.”  There were many witnesses, who have given to us the gospels, the epistles, our worship, and our way of life in the Holy Spirit!

Our gospel reading shows, indeed, that many ordinary people, even those in the crowds who did not ultimately follow Jesus, witnessed actions and words that indicated his true identity.  Picture in your mind the drama surrounding our story from Mark 2:1-12.  Jesus was in his home territory, teaching a huge crowd, and teaching from the OT that God was acting right at that point in history to fulfil his promises:

At that time, when Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that He was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and He was preaching the Word to them.

But there was someone who could not get there on his own:  “And they came, bringing to Jesus a paralytic carried by four men. “

Yes, these were dedicated friends, who went to great lengths to arrange an audience for their ill friend with the Lord:

And when they could not get near Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.

And Jesus rewarded them.  But in a shocking manner:

And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

How odd!  No doubt they had expected that the Lord would bring physical healing, as he had done to so many.  I suppose that the Lord knew that the paralytic had a deeper need.  Perhaps, too, he knew that the people around him had a deeper need, too, than to be wowed by a miracle.  They needed to know who Jesus really was.  And so the story progresses:

Now, some of the scribes were sitting there, reasoning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ And immediately Jesus, perceiving in His spirit that they thus reasoned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you reason thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – He said to the paralytic – “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all.

Yes, it seems that Jesus knew the needs of those who were around him.  They needed to know that he had come not only to bring physical, but also spiritual health—to deal with SIN as well as with DEATH (and the dying process we call disease), for the two enemies of humankind are intertwined.  In this dual action of his, his forgiving and his remaking, he gives them intimations of who he is.  As they themselves put it, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus, the one who can raise up a man, can also forgive, for he is the Son of Man who has received a kingdom from the Father. As we hear about the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision, “to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:14).  He is not only the Son of Man, our glorious representative, but God the Son, come humbly among us.

Something brand new had happened in their midst. It was without precedent! As the gospel says,

They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’

No, they hadn’t.  For there had never been anything like this before!  The Incarnation was the divine Surprise, with no precedents. God had come among them in the flesh, forgiving sin, compassionately healing, and challenging those who saw and heard to believe.  The very one who suspended the earth upon the waters was now in a simple home in Capernaum, receiving one who was suspended on a pallet and let down through the roof.  The very one who forgave and healed at that moment would soon be suspended upon the tree. Who would believe God’s humility?

We have heard the stories so often.  It is easy for them to seem commonplace.  But what God has entrusted to us, his people, is the secret of the ages, the mystery upon which all of life and resurrection turns.  Lent is a time for us to slow down and to contemplate these things again.  As the apostle reminds us, “Therefore, we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” In paying attention to the power and presence of the Lord, in reading the Old Testament and seeing there the mystery of Christ, in following as well as we can the ascetic disciplines of Lent, may we have our eyes cleared so that, with the saints, and with St. Gregory of Palamas, we may know in this lifetime, and not simply after our death, the wonder and beauty of God.

O Star of Orthodoxy, support of the Church and its teacher, O comeliness of ascetics, and incontestable champion of those who speak in theology, Gregory the wonder-worker, the pride of Thessalonica and preacher of grace, implore thou constantly for our salvation.


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