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Exposure to Venom
December 30, 2001
Hebrews 2: 10-18
Stings and Bites
"Crikey! That's was a close 'un!" Steve Irwin, the Aussie known as the Crocodile Hunter, has narrowly avoided the strike of a mamba. Irwin seems to be everywhere these days: If he's not in the bush, or camped on a billabong, you'll find him on Discovery Channel, his own television specials, his Web site, and in TV commercials. He will handle animals as mad as a cut snake. He is not afraid to expose himself to venom, even on the off chance that, once bitten, the anti-venom might not be delivered by FedEx.
But our story today is not about a bloke in the bush but a monk in the mountains. And we're talking not snakes but bees. Honeybees. Sometimes they will let you rob a hive without a problem. Other times they will rise up and sting you for just walking by a hive.
So you have got to wonder why a monk named Remy Rougeau spends so much time with them. On a winters day, when heavy snowfall blankets the upper Midwest, Remy puts on his snowshoes and walks two miles over prairie hills with a shovel. Remy makes this trek is to clear the snow off the bee hives, because if hive entrances are covered, the bees can suffocate.
But Remy does more than simple snow-clearing. Throughout the year, he keeps some bees at the abbey so that he can sting himself. Sting himself. On purpose. Each week he takes a bee in the knee. A local allergy specialist suggested this. "Years ago," Remy recalls, "when I was first assigned the apiary, I nearly choked to death when a bee got into my suit and stung me in the neck. Fortunately, I had an anaphylactic kit ... and after three injections of epinephrine my throat began to relax. Later, after the allergist tested me, he suggested regular exposure to venom. And nowadays, I have no reaction to bee stings at all."
So, exposure to venom is not a deadly thing for Remy Rougeau. In fact, the poison enables him to maintain his passion for the honeybees.
in the same way that this monk loves his bees. God loves us so much that he exposes himself to the venom of our sinfulness.
The word "venom" sounds ugly, especially when applied to ourselves, but we need to understand that that is exactly the way God regards sin--as poison. Our poison is a deadly mixture of hatred and resentment, selfishness and spite, lust and anger and prejudice and greed. The venom of our sinfulness is at least as deadly as the secretions of bees, snakes, spiders, and scorpions. The old Christians even spoke of Seven Deadly Sins.
Envy was one. Like the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, envy is a long and heavy snake, and it does its deadly work by delivering huge quantities of venom. Envy works on us year after year after year, and in the end we die without seeing all the blessings that we have been given in life.
Selfishness is another deadly sin. It works like the venom of the poison arrow frog, a muscle relaxant that causes irreversible blockage of neuromuscular signal transmission. We assume that we have worked hard and we deserve our success, so we retreat into a relaxing cocoon--oblivious to the needs of the world around us.
Then again, maybe our sin is despair, a sense of hopelessness about life. Despair is a conscious giving up, as though we have become the victim of a black widow spider: We have been given such a severe dose of reality, we find ourselves experiencing painful abdominal cramping. We want to just curl up into a ball and die.
We could continue with Sloth, Lust, Avarice, and Pride. It hardly seems possible to endure so much poison.
The venom of human sin was described by Calvinist theologians as the total depravity of the human condition. That is to say that sin has so poisoned the character of humankind that human beings can not do anything that will contribute to their salvation. Our sins have separated us so thoroughly and completely from God that there is nothing we can do that will help us to be reconciled to God.
We do not often think of sin in such terms. Asked if they are a sinner, most people would respond, "Well, I do not rob banks. I do not beat my wife. I do not cheat on my income taxes. I am a pretty good person." And they may be--compared to other people. Total depravity does not mean the absence of good in human terms. We have all read stories of gangsters, prostitutes, and dope peddlers who have on occasion done good deeds. The doctrine of total depravity does not mean that there is not good at all in a human being.
What then does it mean? It means that we are as bad off as we can be. We are beyond self-help. For example EP2:2-3: "Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others."
Total depravity then is a total inability to deliver ourselves from bondage to sin. Hebrews 2:15 says that we were "all our lifetime subject to bondage." This bondage has produced a condition of spiritual death. The state of the human species is total spiritual death. And as a corpse cannot do anything about its state, so we are incapable of doing anything or desiring anything pleasing to God. We are slaves to Satan--who is the "prince of the power of the air", who drives us to fulfill the desires of the flesh, which are enmity with God.
We may think we are ARP--All Right People, that our sins are not all that serious. That is not what God thinks. From the divine point of view, we were under condemnation because we love sin. That is to say we loved our own will above the will of God. We do not love God. We love ourselves, and even our best deeds were done to glorify ourselves.
Thus, RM3:10-11, "There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God." Now that is hard language. That is ugly. Humankind is totally depraved in that everything about our nature is in rebellion against God and is in bondage to Satan. This includes our will, so that we are not at all free to will or decide to serve God. Our will is in bondage to Satan. Again to quote HB2:15. We are all our lives "subject to bondage." Therefore, people of their own "free" will never make a decision for Christ, never can make a decision for Christ.
We are not saved by an act of our supposed "free will." (If I am saved by a decision that I make, then I am my own savior, but it is not so.) We are saved by the grace of God. EP2:8-9 " For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast." Salvation is a gift of God. It is in no way, shape, or fashion a work of man. God chose his people and gave them the gift of faith that they might believe on Jesus Christ and be saved.
We were slaves to sin; We were spiritually dead; We loved the darkness rather than the light; We could hear only the voice of Satan; Until God gave us spiritual ears; God gave us spiritual eyes to see the light; God gave life to our souls and God freed us from bondage to Satan. God did all this in Christ and through Christ.
Supremacy of Christ
The theme of the letter to the Hebrews is the supremacy of Christ, a note that is sounded in the very first chapter and verse: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds" (1:1-2). Hebrews goes on to proclaim Christ's superiority to angels (1:4-2:18), to Moses (3:1-4:13), and to Aaron (4:14-10:18), leaving no doubt that Jesus has superseded the high priests of the old order.
Today's passage from HB2 is part of the section dealing with Christ's superiority to angels (1:4-2:18), but it comes immediately after the frank and rather surprising admission in v9 that Jesus "for a little while was made lower than the angels." Although Christ is greater than any angel, he put himself beneath them for a period of time to experience suffering and death. Hebrews stresses that Jesus became as we are, to save us from sin and death.
V17 says that Jesus had to become like us in every respect, so "that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people" (v. 17). As high priest, Jesus identifies fully with his brothers and sisters, and makes a sacrifice of atonement which removes human sin and restores the divine-human relationship.
A Savior Like Us
The good news of Christmas then is that Jesus came to be stung--to be stung by all this human sinfulness and depravity. "Because he himself was tested by what he suffered," says v18, "he is able to help those who are being tested." Christ suffered for us and with us to lead us on the path to salvation. Sometimes we will only follow a guide who knows us and understands us and has felt our deepest pain.
Just a few Christmas Eves ago, pastor Thomas Tewell was preparing to lead worship at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. As he was about to enter the sanctuary, he met a church member who looked terribly discouraged. Tewell knew that the man was an alcoholic; what he did not know was how lonely and depressed the man was feeling at Christmastime.
Gazing out over the sanctuary, the man said, "Look at all these happy families. If I hadn't messed up so badly, I'd still have a family, too. I'm going to get out of here and go have a drink."
With just a minute to go before the Christmas Eve service, Pastor Tewell had no time for a counseling session. So he ushered the man into a nearby room and then walked to the front of the sanctuary.
"Friends," he said to the congregation, "we're going to start worship in just a minute. But first I need to ask, 'Are there any friends of Bill W. here?'" Tewell knew that Bill W. was the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and that any recovering alcoholic would consider himself or herself a friend of Bill W.
He went on to say to the congregation, "A man here is feeling discouraged, and could use the support of a friend. If you could offer help, please come with me now."
First, a woman got up. Then a man. Then another and another and another. Tewell had no idea that he had so many recovering alcoholics in his congregation. Soon, a whole crowd had gathered in the room by the sanctuary, and they spent that Christmas Eve offering lifesaving support to a brother who was struggling with his desire to drink. Tewell says that hardly anyone was left in the sanctuary for the worship service, but he knew that sometimes we need a fellow sufferer to lead us. On the path of salvation, Jesus is that sufferer who leads and comforts.
A Real Savior
I am sure that "Away in a Manager," sometimes attributed to Martin Luther, was written before the author had children of his own. "The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes." I do not think so. Real newborns cry. Real newborns mess their diapers. Real newborns wail at the top of their lungs.
If we are to understand what happened in Bethlehem, we must believe that when the Baby awakes he bawls, at least that he sobs a little--because that is what Christmas means at its very core. Understand that what happened in the stable in Bethlehem was not pretend. That night God became human flesh.
If, as the song says, "no crying he makes," if Jesus is not completely human, if he was just some sort of hologram, some sort of three-dimensional appearance of God, then what was that on the cross? Did it really die? Moreover, if Jesus did not live as a real person, filled with the Holy Spirit, what makes us think God can give us power to live for Him in this world? But the point of the birth of the babe of Bethlehem is that Jesus was a real person and a real savior.
Destroyer of Death
Jesus is more than a suffering Savior. He is also the destroyer of the sting of death. He shared our lives, insists Hebrews, "so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death" (vv. 14-15). For Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, exposure to the venom of our depravity does not cause death; it destroys death. Only by experiencing the sting of death can Jesus be a completely faithful, merciful and effective high priest. God's plan is to bring "many children to glory," and to do this God decided to "make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings" (v. 10). The sting of suffering and death is no accident; it is part of the divine drama of redemption. By his personal pain, Christ gains glory not only for himself, but also for us. By his willingness to walk this path, Jesus becomes the pioneer who creates a path for us to follow.
Jesus used his exposure to the venom of sin to gain power over the very evil that he encountered. From his first day on earth, Jesus injected the wondrous power of life into a death-dominated world. His birth in Bethlehem brought life to a people feeling crushed by the cold and cruel efficiency of the Roman Empire. His infancy took a stand for life in the face of Herod's slaughter of innocent children. His ministry brought renewal of life to the poor and sick and oppressed throughout Galilee and Judaea. His death on the cross did not mark the end of his life-giving work. God used the cross to overcome the devil, to introduce the resurrection, and to free us from the fear of death. Jesus took the sin of the world on himself when he went to the cross, sacrificing himself for our forgiveness, and we are now free to join him in enjoying eternal life with God.
If Remy Rougeau is a keeper of the hives, Jesus is the Keeper of our lives. Jesus loves us, Jesus cleanses us, Jesus offers us forgiveness. Jesus exposed himself to venom. He let himself be stung, again and again--for us, so that we could have new life, so that we could have poison-less, God-filled life, now and forever! Amen.
Diary of Benedictine Monk Remy Rougeau, Slate.com.
Tewell, Thomas. Plenary address, Preaching With Passion National Conference, Washington, D.C., May 31, 2001.
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Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 01/11/02