Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Throne of Grace” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Good Friday: March 30, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
One of the most popular fantasy television series ever is HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is based on the bestselling fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. It is dark, depraved, and extremely violent, but its popularity reveals that it apparently resonates with millions of people. In Game of Thrones there is one specific throne, the “Iron Throne” that is coveted by all the kings, for the “Iron Throne” was constructed by forging with dragon fire many swords of vanquished kings into an asymmetrical, uncomfortable, but symbolically powerful throne. The winner of this “game of thrones” gets to sit upon the “Iron Throne.”
I suspect that one of the reasons Game of Thrones is so popular is that it mirrors a dark reality of the human condition, the never ending lust for power, the lust to attain one sort of “Iron Throne” or another throughout our lives. It begins with toddlers struggling with sibling rivalry in the nursery, continues with bullies on the playground in preschool and elementary school, on into middle school and high school with class rankings, on into college with the hazing involved with sororities or fraternities, on into corporate careers marked by the race up the ladder, on into retirement and membership at the “right” country club or retirement community, and yes, even all the way to being interred in the “right” cemetery or memorial garden. And of course internationally, the global game of thrones also continues.
All these various games of thrones continue throughout our earthly lives, and leave vast flotsam and jetsam of wounded people in their wake. And the “winners” of the game inevitably find their respective thrones not nearly as comfortable and secure as they envisioned—as Shakespeare insightfully put it, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (The Second Part of King Henry IV, III.i.31).
On Good Friday we recount what happened to a very different King, Jesus Christ, the King of kings who was crucified with a sign above him reading “King of the Jews,” a King who did not come to earth to play a game of thrones, or to play any game at all, but instead to give his life for all those worn out by this game.
If you were to look at Jesus’ earthly life through a Game of Thrones lens, you would see that Jesus lost, bigtime, at the hands of a Roman Empire that was just as violent as anything penned by George R. R. Martin. But in his death Jesus forged a throne of his own, a throne that is a refuge, a haven, a shelter for the vast flotsam and jetsam of people wounded by their respective games of thrones. In his blood shed on the cross Jesus forged a throne infinitely more powerful than any “Iron Throne”, his throne of grace, as we read in the Letter to the Hebrews:
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” scripture tells us. This is good news, but it begs some uncomfortable questions: What are your weaknesses? Where are the chinks in your armor? What is your Achilles heel? There are probably some things that immediately come to your mind—but if you have trouble identifying them, ask someone who knows you well and they will be able to tell you (spouses are especially adept at this). Speaking for myself, I have plenty of weaknesses, numerous chinks in my armor, and more than a couple Achilles’ heels. Yet scripture assures all of us that in Jesus Christ we have a King, a High Priest who not only knows all our weaknesses, knows all the chinks in our armor, knows all our Achilles’ heels, but sympathizes with those very areas in our lives, and gives us grace, abundant grace from his throne of grace.
The most vulnerable of Paul’s thirteen letters in the New Testament is his Second Letter to the Corinthians, a letter in which he revealed his struggles as a Christian, his struggles as an apostle of the gospel of God’s grace. These struggles included external suffering such as being beaten and imprisoned, as well as internal suffering such as stress and anxiety in the church. And in a particularly vulnerable passage, Paul wrote about a personal weakness that was more powerful than him, a personal weakness to which he referred as a “thorn in the flesh”, a weakness Paul did not identify specifically but about which he asked God for help. God answered his prayer, but in a way Paul did not expect, as he wrote:
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).
Even the Apostle Paul, outside of Jesus Christ, arguably the most influential person in the history of the Christian church, had weaknesses—and Paul received from Jesus not only sympathy, but grace, sufficient grace for those very weaknesses. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” remained, but along with it the abundant grace and power of God remained even more.
In his passion Jesus also experienced a thorn in his flesh, in fact, multiple thorns in his flesh, as John wrote: “The soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face” (John 19:2-3). On the cross Jesus our King wore this crown of thorns, a crown of thorns that literally and metaphorically included the thorn in Paul’s flesh, and also included the thorns in your flesh. On the cross Jesus’ “sacred head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn” was indeed a “kingly head, surrounded with mocking crown of thorn” (Hymn 168 in The Hymnal 1982). And make no mistake about it, Jesus’ sacred head lay more uneasily with that crown of thorns than we could ever imagine.
And as Jesus’ final breath drew near, John, the one disciple who was actually at the foot of the cross as an eye witness, later recorded some of Jesus’ final words as “It is finished” (John 19:30). In other words, Jesus not only proclaimed that the atonement for your sins was finished, he also marked the end of humanity’s game of thrones—two words for the never ending human lust for power: “Game Over.”
And again, from the blood that flowed from Jesus’ head and hands and feet Jesus the dying King forged his throne of grace upon which the Risen Jesus sits even now. Moreover, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews shows us how we can respond: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). And so on this Good Friday the good news of the gospel is that Jesus your King even now beckons you to his throne of grace.