Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Your Great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
October 14, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On Elvis Presley’s 1967 Grammy-winning gospel album How Great Thou Art he sings a very short, upbeat, to-the-point gem that is less than two minutes long—a song entitled “If the Lord Wasn’t Walking By My Side”:

I don’t know just what I’d do
If the Lord wasn’t walking by my side
When I was drifting, when I was drifting on the sea of a despair
And I was wondering, I was wondering if Jehovah’s up there
When Jesus found me, Jesus found me in my sinful life
He heard me praying, he heard me praying on my knees at night
Now I’m singing, now I’m singing this happy song
Because I’m happy, because I’m happy as I go along
And I don’t know, I don’t know just what I’d do
If the Lord wasn’t walking by my side

What would I do, what would I do when a tear fills my eyes
What would I do, what would I do when it’s my time to die
Well I’d be lonely, discouraged, burdened on the way
If the Lord wasn’t walking by my side every day

I’d be so friendless, I’d be friendless all alone and blue
And I’d be helpless, I’d be helpless, wouldn’t know what to do
And I don’t know, I don’t know just what I’d do
If the Lord wasn’t walking by my side

The Lord is indeed not only walking by your side, but also walking before you and behind you as well—as we prayed in the powerful collect appointed for today: “Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us” (The Book of Common Prayer 234).  Even if you are unaware of it, on your journey through life the grace of God precedes you, and the grace of God follows you.

In the Old Testament we see that the grace of God preceded and followed the Israelites in the wilderness, as the writer of Exodus tells us:

The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.  Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people (Exodus 13:21-22).

God also showed his preceding and following grace to the Israelites through prophets, priests, and kings—prophets like Samuel and Isaiah, priests like Aaron and Eli, and kings like David and Solomon.  In the New Testament we see that God’s grace precedes and follows you in Jesus Christ, who fulfills all three roles of prophet, priest and king.  In today’s lesson the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes Jesus’ role as your Great High Priest:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to 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).

In Jesus, your Great High Priest, God’s grace has preceded and followed you through his incarnation, death and resurrection, through his passing “through the heavens.”  Jesus’ throne is literally described as “the throne of grace”—and it is to this throne of grace that you are beckoned to approach when you need mercy from God, when you need “help in time of need.”

Where do you need God’s mercy today, God’s help today, God’s grace today?  I cannot speak for you, but in my life I need these things from God every single day—because my life, perhaps like yours, is full of ups and downs.

In his 1942 masterpiece The Screwtape Letters C. S. Lewis writes about the Christian faith from the unique perspective of a senior demon named Screwtape who writes letters to his nephew Wormwood, a young demon in training—letters about how to disrupt and discourage the lives of Christians.  Listen to what Screwtape writes about the ups and downs of life:

Humans are amphibians…As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.  This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change.  Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.  If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life—his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down (37-38).

Can you relate?  The bad news is all of us experience these ups and downs—seasons when we feel God’s presence and seasons when like Elvis we wonder “if Jehovah’s up there.”  We are all like Wormwood’s “patient.”  The good news is that even if we are unaware of it, the grace of God still precedes and follows us.

I have been slowly rereading one of my all-time favorite novels, Victor Hugo’s massive tome, Les Miserables.  One of the characters, a young insurgent named Marius, who is madly in love with Jean Valjean’s adopted daughter Cossette, is wounded during a battle at a barricade.  Jean Valjean scoops up the wounded Marius and disappears into the sewers of Paris with the unconscious Marius on his back.  Unbeknownst to Marius, he is carried by Jean Valjean to safety.  After Marius’s recovery there is a time when Marius does not know who had rescued him, but Marius is still very grateful, as he tells Cossette and Jean Valjean:

Yes, that man, whoever he may be, was sublime.  Do you know what he did?  He intervened like the archangel.  He must have thrown himself into the midst of the fighting, snatched me out of it, opened the sewer, dragged me into it, carried me through it!  He must have made his way for more than four miles through hideous subterranean galleries, bent, stooping, in the darkness, in the cloaca, more than four miles, with a corpse on his back!  And with what aim?  With the single aim of saving that corpse.  And that corpse was I (Signet Classics edition 1359).

Even then Jean Valjean does not reveal his identity either to Marius or Cossette as the one who had saved Marius.  Rather, as Hugo simply wrote, “Jean Valjean kept silent” (1360).

In 1922 a girl named Mary Stevenson was born near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  When she was only six her mother died.  She was one of eight siblings her father raised alone during the Great Depression.  She married at age sixteen to a man who turned out to be so abusive that she had to flee for safety with their infant son.  And yet, in spite of all this, Mary Stevenson wrote a poem that has become very well-known, a poem that describes how God’s grace precedes and follows you:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints.
Other times there were one set of footprints.
This bothered me because I noticed during the low periods of my life
When I was suffering from anguish, sorrow, or defeat
I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord, “You promised me, Lord,
That if I followed you, you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
There have only been one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”
The Lord replied, “The times when you have seen only a set of footprints
Is when I carried you.”

You may be thinking, ““Footprints”?  Really?  I have read that poem so many times.  It’s such a cliché.  Please come up with a more original sermon illustration.”    But it’s true.  Elvis was right—the Lord is walking by your side.  And Mary Stevenson was right—God’s grace carries you.  God’s grace precedes and follows you, even when and especially when you are completely unaware of it.

St. Patrick described the preceding and following grace of God this way:

Christ be with me, Christ within me
Christ behind me, Christ before me
Christ beside me, Christ to win me
Christ to comfort and restore me
(Hymn 370 in The Hymnal 1982)

Jesus, our Great High Priest, himself experienced the ups and downs of earthly life.  In his incarnation Jesus who was already fully divine, became fully human, and experienced what C. S. Lewis called “this undulation in every department of his life.”  Again, as we read in today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews “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.”

At the Last Supper Jesus, our Great High Priest, spoke to his disciples about his preceding and following grace, particularly regarding heaven:

Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also (John 14:1-3).

And the next day as Jesus carried his cross on his back he carried all of us through the sewer of sin and death in order to save us and give us eternal life.  Our awareness or lack of awareness of God’s preceding and following grace has no bearing on its validity and truthfulness.  Scripture tells us, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Back to Les Miserables…near the end of this novel Marius learns that it was in fact Jean Valjean who had rescued him from certain death.  He tells Cossette:

Your father…he snatched me out of that abyss to give me to you.  He carried me on his back through the frightful sewer.  Oh!  I am an unnatural ingrate.  Cossette, after having been your providence, he was mine.  Just think, there was a horrible quagmire , enough to drown him a hundred times, to drown him in the mire, Cossette!  He carried me through that.  I had fainted; I saw nothing, I heard nothing, I couldn’t know anything about my own fate….I will spend the rest of my life in venerating him (1450).

And Marius’ response of veneration to Jean Valjean is the most appropriate response to Jesus Christ, your Great High Priest, whose grace has always preceded and followed you, and who even now beckons you to his throne of grace.