The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2000-2001

He Knows Our Every Weakness
Hebrews 4:12-16
The pastor walked toward the sanctuary while the organist played the prelude for the Christmas Eve worship service. Just before entering, he saw a church member peering through the sanctuary doors at the congregation and looking very discouraged. The pastor knew that the man struggled with an addiction to alcohol but had been abstinent for several months. Coming alongside the man and sensitive to his despondent appearance, the pastor stood silently next to him.

"Look at all these happy families. If I had not messed up so badly, I'd still have a family, too. I'm going to get out of here and go have a drink."

The pastor knew that he did not have time to adequately counsel the man before the service but he also did not want the man to walk away. Thinking fast, he escorted him into a nearby room and then walked to the front of the sanctuary. Standing before the congregation he said,"Friends, we are going to start worship in just a moment but I first need to ask, 'Are there any friends of Bill W. here? There is a man who is feeling very discouraged and could use the support of a friend. If you could offer some help, please come with me now."

A woman rose and followed her pastor. Then a man walked out and several others joined them. The pastor was surprised by how many understood his request and responded. That night, they celebrated Christmas by helping a friend in need.

But what did the pastor mean by his request? Who is or was Bill W?

Bill W. is Bill Wilson, the founder of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). The pastor knew that any recovering alcoholic would consider himself or herself a friend of Bill W.1

Alcoholics Anonymous has successfully helped millions of people overcome the enslaving grip of alcohol based on one key principle. The best person to help an alcoholic is not a psychiatrist, or A social worker or a minister but another alcoholic. They believe that unless you have been there, you cannot understand the struggles, the temptations, and the feelings produced by the addiction. The author of Hebrews would affirm AA's approach to therapy because he saw it demonstrated by God. 

Hebrews is a carefully constructed sermon intended to strengthen, instruct, and exhort members of a small community of faith to remain resolute in their courage and loyal in their confession of Jesus Christ. Its readers had a second-hand faith. They lacked the commitment and zeal of eyewitnesses. They had been converted through the witness of others who had actually heard Jesus preach and teach. They also were influenced by other theological thoughts. While Jewish by birth and religious practice, they lived in a society dominated by Greek mythology and philosophy. They had an amalgamation of ideas to sift through and some had become confused and misguided in their thinking. The author's goal is to bring clarity to their knowledge of the nature and work of Jesus Christ.2 

The book contains what theologians call an explicit high Christology. In the opening verses, the author tells us that Jesus existed before the foundation of the world (1:2) and that this very Creation was brought into existence through him. Even now, the universe is sustained by his word (1:3). The man from Galilee is now the radiant splendor of God's glory and is an exact likeness of God (1:3). The author's favorite designation for Jesus is "Son of God" (1:2, 5; 4:14; 5:5; 6:6; 7:3) reminding us that he is the heir of all things. 3

The author never uses technical terms such as ascension but paints a powerful description of its consequences. He describes Jesus passing through the heavens (4:14) and receiving the crown of glory and honor (2:9). The Son of God is now seated at the Father's right hand (1:3, 13; 12:2) waiting for that day when all the nations of the world will be subdued beneath his feet.4 These images of the exalted magnificence of the Son of God are interspersed throughout the book to convince the reader of the superiority of Christ over both the legal regulations of the old covenant and all other heavenly beings. This is the God in whom Abraham and Sarah, Moses and David trusted to fulfill the promises of a son, a homeland, and a nation. But the writer of Hebrews does not allow his depiction of the divinity of Jesus to lessen his understanding of his humanity. Once again, the author avoids the technical term but the concept of incarnation is clearly in his mind as he describes its impact for our lives.

In the luxury of his grandeur, God could have remained isolated from his fallen creation. He could have taken a passive spectator's role. He could have sat upon his throne and applied the narrowest application of the law to pronounce judgment upon humanity. But he did not.

In Jesus, God did not remain a distant judge, or unattached and unconnected to his creation. The author writes, "...he understands our weakness." Jesus understands us because in the miracle of the Incarnation, the Son of God took the form of a man and was born of a woman. In a Bethlehem stable, he experienced the barrenness of poverty. Growing up in Nazareth, he learned about the humiliation of political oppression. As a young man, he felt the sorrow that comes with a father's death. Walking throughout the countryside of Galilee, he shared the frustration of his people. The Son of God experienced the struggles of human life, the unrelenting assaults of evil, the magnetism of transgressions and the lure of disobedience but resisted the enslaving power of sin.

Your understanding of others takes on a different perspective after you have shared in their experiences. My dad recently discovered this. When I was younger, my father would take me golfing after supper. Since my drives seldom stayed in the fairway, he would always remind me to carefully watch the ball to see where it landed. But with my poor eyesight, that was easier said than done. He could never understand my physical limitations until his eyesight began to deteriorate. The last time we played together we had to look for a few of his errant drives that he had lost sight of. He finally admitted that he has a completely different appreciation of the difficulty that I had trying to watch a tiny white ball in the twilight.

God did not have to come in human form to understand the temptations that we encounter but he did. By sending his Son in human form, God assures us that he has empathy for us. In Greek and Roman mythology, the gods never held empathy for humanity. "Aristotle criticizes Plato's suggestion that humans should look at the Ideal Good or at God, declaring that the gods cannot be an example for human conduct for the simple reason that the gods are gods, with a mode of existence far removed from human life."5 But in Jesus, God enters into the sphere of human life to tell us that he is not removed from our experiences. The turmoil of life is not beyond his comprehension. He has felt the distress of our disappointments and defeats. He even knows our every weakness. But we too often, try to keep our weaknesses in secret assuming that he would not understand; afraid of God's judgment or condemnation. 

The four boys knew the layout of the golf course. They had walked through the forests and rough that lined the fairway many times looking for golf balls. That day's excursion was just like any other until they came to a pond. An eight year old, named Chris was walking near the edge of the pond with an older boy. Suddenly Chris fell into the water. Everyone laughed as Chris floundered in the water. They thought he was playing a trick on them when he went under. By the time they realized their misjudgment Chris had drowned. At least that is the story they told to the police. Afraid that the authorities would not understand, the boys kept a secret for two years. Finally, one of them confessed to a friend. He had pushed Chris into the water as a prank.

The two years of secret keeping had devastating consequences on the boys. All three suffered emotional instability. Their friendship dissolved. They became withdrawn and had nightmares. One began crying frequently and had to sleep with his mother. Another had to be taken to the emergency room for stitches to his head to close a gash he made by running head first into a dumpster. Another one could not hold a job. He would become despondent and angry and stay home from work without telling his employer. The third child started hearing voices and later entered a hospital for emotional disturbed children.6

Fear of punishment, embarrassment over their foolishness, we will never know their original motivation. It has become lost in a murky pool of feelings caused by the stress of the experience. However, we do know what they lacked-empathy from others. Parents and police were the authority figures who the boys assumed would not understand; who would only condemn, judge and punish. Terror stricken they cowardly concealed their costly mistake and it cost them their lives.

Each of us carries secrets that we hope never become known by our friends, our family, and even our God. Embarrassed that we could be so stupid to commit such a deed, we try to bury our crime in the dark reaches of our memory. We hope that time will heal the wounds but it seldom does. They just fester below the surface affecting our physical, social, and spiritual health.

During a year of service as hospice chaplain, I learned about some of the secrets of my former parishioners. They were too uncomfortable to reveal their dark past to the pastoral staff but shared it with their doctors and nurses as they approached their final days. I noticed a common characteristic of these people. Like those three boys, they lived with a certain amount of hesitation. In previous conversations, I could tell that they left more unsaid than said. They attended worship but seldom participated in a small group. They volunteered for various projects but usually worked alone.

I also have known people who were able to share their mistakes with others or me. I will always remember the day when a young man poured out his heart at a leadership retreat. Before 18 other people, this man confessed to fathering a child when he was a teenager. We cried with him as we felt his pain but our tears were also tears of joy for we knew that he had finally discovered that he worshipped a God who knew his every weakness. He now has a dynamic ministry helping couples rejuvenate stale relationships and restoring broken marriages. His face radiates with the joy of God's grace. 

After the truth about Chris' tragic death became known, a policeman said,

All of them tried to suppress the information, but they couldn't do it. They're just children. They held their secret so long out of fear and guilt over what had been done and fear of being punished. I couldn't think of a more just outcome than to help those boys overcome those feelings. 
Secrecy prevented those boys from enjoying the grace of forgiveness. It does the same for you and me. Deception may appear as a protective barrier but after we experience grace, we learn that it is an imprisoning dungeon. My friends let us not wallow in a silent prison cell. We serve a God who can empathize with us, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, with confidence, with openness, because he knows our every weakness.

1 "Exposure to Venom," Homiletics Online, December 30, 2001. Online:

2 William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Word Bible Commentary, Eds. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), c, ci.

3 George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsman Publishing, 1974), 577.

4 George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 578.

5 L. Ann Jervis, "Empathy and the New Testament," The McMaster Journal of Theology, Online:, October 10, 2003.

6 Gordon MacDonald, Rebuilding Your Broken World, Expanded edition with study guide, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990), 76, 77 from a story published in the Boston Globe, June, 1984.


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