A Friend in High Places
Do you have clout?
The answer is, it depends on who you know. That’s how Mike Royko explained the meaning of the word.
If you were raised in Chicago, you no doubt recognize that name. For over 30 years Mike Royko was the voice of Chicago to the nation. At the height of his career over 600 newspapers carried his columns. After he died in 1997 his family and friends published 110 of his columns (out of almost 8000 he wrote) in a bestselling book called One More Time.
A column from 1967 discusses the proper meaning of the word “clout.” It seems that someone sent him a copy of Vogue magazine that included a survey of people with “clout.” The list included President Lyndon Johnson, Ho Chi Minh, and the Pope. Royko called it “a surprisingly dumb thing to write. And they have a lot of nerve stealing an old Chicago word and distorting its meaning” (p. 17).
Everyone from Chicago knows what clout is. Clout is basically what makes the city tick. Royko’s point is that clout never goes down, it always goes up. Clout is what you have if you can call city hall and make a parking ticket disappear. Clout is what you have if you can get a private meeting with the governor. Or to use Royko’s examples, a Chicago police officer might have enough clout with a ward boss to get a promotion to sergeant. The ward boss might have enough clout with the mayor to get a sweetheart contract for his brother-in-law. And the mayor might have enough clout with the White House to get an extra $10 million in pork barrel money for the city. That’s clout. It’s a grand old Chicago word.
If you’ve got clout, it means you’ve got a friend in high places. We all understand that because we all need help from time to time. Maybe we can’t get a job interview or we can’t get in to see the doctor or we need some help at city hall. We need someone who can cut through the red tape and help us when we can’t help ourselves. In this sermon I hope to encourage you from Hebrews 4:14-16 that Jesus is exactly the friend we need. We love to sing “What a friend we have in Jesus,” but is there anything to those words at all? Our text gives us the answer. Jesus is the friend we need because he is the Right Person with the Right Past in the Right Place.
To use Mike Royko’s word, we’ve got clout in heaven.
I. The Right Person
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess” (Hebrews 4:14).
Most of us are at a disadvantage when we read this verse because we don’t have a clear notion of what a high priest is. The main thing we need to know is that the high priest was the number one person in the Old Testament religious system. There were various levels and orders of priests in Judaism, but there was only one high priest. His chief job was to represent the nation of Israel on the Day of Atonement. On that day he would go behind the thick veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. There he would offer the blood of a goat on the golden Mercy Seat that sat atop the Ark of the Covenant. When the blood was offered in the way God prescribed, the sins of the people were atoned or covered for another year (see Leviticus 16).
He is the right person to hear our prayers because he has entered the Holy of Holies in heaven.
That system was never meant to last forever. The high priest had to repeat the sacrifice year after year. When one high priest died, he was replaced by another who continued the yearly sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Now that Christ has come, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament has been abolished. Christ has become our great high priest who has passed through the heavens into the sanctuary of God. Unlike the sacrifices of the Old Testament high priests, Christ’s sacrifice never needs to be repeated. Through his death on the cross, he made a complete and final atonement for our sins.
He is the right person to hear our prayers because he has entered the Holy of Holies in heaven. He is Jesus (his human name) and he is also the Son of God (his divine title). The same Jesus who once walked on the earth is now in heaven, having opened the way to God by his own eternal sacrifice.
II. The Right Past
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
The King James Version says that Jesus is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” He is “touched” by the weakness of our feeble flesh. Whatever touches us, touches him. To say “I feel your pain” has become a cliché today, but in Jesus’ case it is true. He is moved by our sorrow, aware of our tears, and touched by our failure. He knows what we are going through.
Jesus is touched with the feeling of our infirmities.
Sometimes when we are in the middle of a hard time well-meaning people will say, “I know what you are going through.” In my opinion that is often a cruel thing to say. How can you be sure you know what another person is thinking or feeling? I think it’s better not to say that because if you really do know what another person is going through, your heart will make that clear to them. And if you don’t, it’s far better not to say anything at all.
As I was preparing the message, my mind drifted back to something that happened over 45 years ago. During my growing up years in a small Alabama town, one of my good friends was Hal Kirby, Jr. We used to wrestle in his front yard and then we would go inside his house and watch television. In my mind’s eye I can still see the room where we played games and read comic books by the hour. When we were in the seventh grade, Hal went on a trip on the Natchez Trace with our youth group. Evidently he got some kind of infection or virus. The next day he died suddenly. It was the first time I had ever been that close to death.
Now fast-forward almost ten years. In November 1974 my father died after a brief illness. Because he was a beloved physician, it seemed as if everyone in town came to pay their respects. People I didn’t know told me stories about my father. Men and women wept openly at the funeral home. After all these years the events surrounding my father’s death are a blur in my memory. I recall hundreds of people stopping by to express their sympathy, but I don’t remember what anyone said. Except for one person. The scene is etched clearly in my mind although it could not have lasted more than 20 seconds. I was sitting in a bedroom at home talking with some friends. In came Hal Kirby, Sr. He put his arm on my shoulder and said, “Ray, we’re so sorry to hear about your father. He was a good man. If there is anything we can do, let us know.” That was it. A few words and he was gone. But what a message those few words conveyed. Because I knew that he knew what it meant to lose someone you love, his words are the only ones that have stayed with me in the 37 years since my father died.
We are accepted by God only on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done.
That’s what our text means when it says that Jesus is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. He knows our pain, he sees our weakness, he understands what we are going through. Because he was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” he truly knows what we are going through.
C. S. Lewis on Temptation
How good it is to know that he was tempted just as we are. The text means that Jesus faced every kind of temptation we can face. Basically every temptation falls into one of three categories: the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life (cf. 1 John 2:14-17). Jesus defeated the devil in those three areas. Where we failed, he succeeded. Where we gave in, he stood strong. Where we collapsed under pressure, Jesus obeyed his Father. He was tempted, yet he never sinned by giving in. I find great comfort in these words of C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity:
A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in....Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means (p. 142).
This has enormous implications for our spiritual life. Because Christ was tempted and never gave in, we may be sure that he is never surprised by anything we say or do. We gave in too early so we never felt the full force of temptation. But Jesus let the waves of temptation rush over him and stood like the Rock of Gibraltar. When we pray we don’t have to worry that we will somehow shock him. He’s heard it all and seen it all. We can go ahead and be totally honest about our failures. He knows about it even before we tell him.
Ron Dunn and Jesus
And we don’t have to prove ourselves worthy when we pray. I take great encouragement from something Ron Dunn wrote in a fine book called Don’t Just Stand There, Pray Something! He tells what he learned at the end of a very bad day. When he got up, he didn’t spend time praying. As the day wore on, he was churlish in the way he treated people. When the day finally ended, he knelt to pray and began by saying, “Lord, I’ve made a mess of my life today and I confess I’m not worthy to come into your presence.” At that point he felt the Lord interrupt his prayer. “Ron, do you think having a quiet time this morning would have made you worthy to talk to me? Do you think doing good and treating people right would have somehow made you qualified to come into my presence? If that’s what you think, you don’t know yourself, you don’t know me, and you don’t understand the grace of God.” I can relate to that story because most of the time that’s exactly how I think. It’s so easy for all of us to believe that our good works somehow commend us to God, that if we’ll just “be good,” God is more likely to hear our prayers.
God has given to every Christian a card that says “Admit to the Throne Room of Heaven.”But to think like that is to deny the gospel itself. We are accepted by God only on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done. How dare we wave the tattered rags of a quiet time and think that somehow that makes a difference in heaven. I’m all for having a quiet time and all for treating people right and totally on the side of living for the Lord, but all of that cannot add even a tiny sliver to our acceptance before God. It is either all by grace or not by grace at all.
Because Jesus knows how sinful we really are, we don’t have to play games when we pray. We can come to God just the way we are, clinging only to the cross and claiming nothing but the blood of Jesus as our own hope of being accepted when we pray.
Our text contains one final truth that should encourage us when we pray. Jesus is not only the Right Person with the Right Past, He is also in the Right Place to give us the help we need.
III. The Right Place
“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
When we pray, we are invited to come to the “throne of grace.” Because of Jesus, the throne of God’s justice is now a throne of grace. When we come before that throne, we will not be turned away. Many people think of God’s throne as similar to the principal’s office in high school. Do you remember what it was like to be called to the principal’s office? Nothing good could happen behind that closed door. You were bound to get in some kind of trouble if you went in there. Some students went in to the principal’s office and just disappeared! They were never seen again. No one knows what happened to them. That’s how many of us think of God’s throne because we have a vision of an angry God who is looking for a chance to hurl a lightning bolt at us. But it is not true. When we come to God in Jesus’ name, he’s glad to see us. He knows who we are, he calls us by name, and he welcomes us before the throne. “My child,” he says, “what can I do for you today?”
Mercy is what gets us out of trouble.
That’s why we are to come with confidence or boldness. The Greek word means “"with freedom of speech." When we come before God in prayer, we don’t have to be ashamed or act bashful or watch our words lest we say something wrong. We can unburden our heart before the Lord and say whatever we want to say. A friend showed me a card he received from the National Hockey League that admits him free of charge to every arena in the NHL. All he has to do is show the card and he gets free VIP parking, free admittance to the special entrance for players and management, and the right to enter otherwise restricted areas. The card gets him in free and gives him special privileges, but it does him no good unless he uses it. If he wants to, he can still pay for parking and still pay for his ticket and still sit with the general public. The card has to be used boldly in order to do him any good. Otherwise the privileges that are his will go unused. God has given to every Christian a card that says “Admit to the Throne Room of Heaven." The card is stamped with the blood of Jesus Christ. But that card does you no good unless you use it boldly when you pray.
“Lord, Have Mercy”
Out text tells us that when we come to the “throne of grace,” we will “receive mercy” and “find grace.” Mercy is what gets us out of trouble. A friend gave me a tape of a speech Gary Olson made in April 1998. Gary was a former elder of our church in Oak Park, IL and for many years was the head football coach at Oak Park-River Forest High School. He made the speech eight months after his heart surgery in 1997 and a year and a half before his sudden death in November 1999. On the tape Gary is giving a short talk to a group of Christian coaches in Springfield on the subject of handling the hard times of life. He began by mentioning his lung cancer in the early 1980s that led to his coming to Christ. Then in 1989 his wife Dawn was in a terrible accident that nearly took her life. Gary stepped down from coaching for a while so he could help her. The hardest blows came in 1997. In August of that year he collapsed during football practice and was taken to the hospital where the doctors discovered he had an enlarged heart. A few days later he had surgery to replace a defective heart valve. A month or so later his mother suddenly died of a brain hemorrhage. It seemed almost too much to bear. On the tape he said that he had called his pastor and asked, “How should I pray?” His pastor told him to pray “Lord, have mercy. God, have mercy. Jesus, have mercy.” I was his pastor and also a very good friend. I smiled when I heard him tell the story because I had forgotten that phone call. Then it all came back to me. My answer was off the top of my head but in retrospect it was perfectly biblical. There are many times in life when the only thing we can do is to cry out, “God, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Jesus, have mercy.” Our text assures us that when we pray like that, we will find the mercy we need from God.
Verse 16 ends with the good news that we can find “grace to help in our time of need.” One modern translation says we can find “grace to help in the nick of time.” I like that. The last phrase literally means “at the right moment." God’s answers are always perfectly timed. Not too soon and not too late. And often they do seem to come “in the nick of time.” God gives us the grace we need but not until we truly need it.
God’s answers are always perfectly timed.
It’s a wonderful thing to feel complete freedom to come into God’s presence. One of our sons helped me understand this years ago during an all-night prayer meeting. We set up the plan this way. During the night we began every hour with a brief devotional by a different person. During the hour assigned to me, I gave a brief devotional and then we spent the remainder of the hour in prayer. After I finished speaking, a friend said to me, “Did you see what Josh did?” Our oldest son was probably 5 years old at the time. “What did he do?” I hadn’t noticed anything. My friend said, “While you were talking to us, Josh came up to you and asked a question. You stopped your talk, leaned over, and answered him. Then you finished your talk.” I didn’t even remember the incident because it happened so naturally. Because he was my son, Josh knew he could come to me any time, even when I was speaking, and I would not turn him away. That’s the “boldness” and “freedom of speech” that all of us ought to have when we pray.I come now to the bottom line, and it is good news for all of us. We’ve got a friend in high places. In the words of Mike Royko, we’ve got clout. We’ve got connections in heaven. We’ve got a friend at the throne of grace who delights to answer our prayers. He’s the Right Person with the Right Past in the Right Place. Because he feels your pain, he can sympathize with what you’re going through. Nothing you say will surprise him. Come boldly. Come often. Come to the throne of grace and pour out your heart to God. You will not be turned away.
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