A Friend in High Places
April 30, 2000 | Ray Pritchard
If you were raised in Chicago, you no doubt recognize the name of Mike Royko. For over 30 years he was the voice of Chicago to the nation. At the height of his career over 600 newspapers carried his columns. After he died several years ago, his family and friends published 110 of his columns (out of over 8000 he wrote) in a bestselling book called One More Time.
I have been reading Royko lately and greatly enjoying it. A column from 1967 especially caught my attention. It seems that someone sent him a copy of Vogue magazine with a survey of people with “clout.” The list included President Lyndon Johnson, Ho Chi Minh of Hanoi, and the Pope. Mike 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.”
Everyone from Chicago knows what clout is. Clout is basically what makes this city tick. Royko’s point is that clout never goes down, it always go 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.
We all need friends in high places from time to time. 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. He can help us when we pray.
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 are 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 (Yom Kippur). 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).
That system was never meant to last forever. The high priest had to repeat the sacrifice year after year. And 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. Though he is invisible to us (just as the high priest in the Old Testament was invisible when he went behind the veil), 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). Though he is not visible to us today, 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).
I confess that I prefer the King James rendering of this verse: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Consider that lovely phrase “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” Jesus 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.
Sometimes when we are in the middle of a hard time people who mean well will say to us, “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 never 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.
This week I realized that I hadn’t preached on this text in almost 20 years. As I was preparing the message, a certain illustration came to mind that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. When I dug out my old sermon notes, I discovered that I had used the same illustration the last time I preached on Hebrews 4:14-16. The story goes back over 35 years. 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 would play games and read comic books by the hour. When we were in the seventh grade, Hal went on a trip up 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. I remember going to his funeral and being too frightened to walk by the casket.
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 quarter-century since my father died.
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
And 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 the 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.
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 the presence of God? 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.
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 16
“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?”
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. This week Alex Pirus (who serves with Hockey Ministries International) showed me a card he has 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. Alex used that card to illustrate this verse. 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 what we will find when we come to the “throne of grace.” We may “receive mercy” and “find grace.” Mercy is what gets us out of trouble. A few weeks ago a friend at the local high school gave me a tape of a speech Gary Olson made in April 1998. Gary was a former elder of our church 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 last November. 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. At about the same time he faced a crisis in his family. 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.
Bob and Amber’s Excellent Adventure
Hebrews 4:14-16 is truly a wonderful passage and we ought to be encouraged as we study it. And yet we still wonder, “Does prayer make a difference?” A few days ago Bob and Amber Leland stopped by to see me one final time before leaving the Chicago area. In a few weeks they will return to Irian Jaya for another term of missionary service. When we got together, Bob had something definite on his mind. He took out some sheets of paper and said he wanted to check on the answers to some prayer requests. There must have been almost 50 different items covering many different areas of our church life. Each one had been written down and the date noted. Some were labeled “Continual” and others were for specific needs. We went over each request one by one. Bob asked me to tell him if the request had been answered or not. He would write down Yes, No, or Not Yet depending on what I said. Some of the requests were for things such as revival in the congregation and spiritual power in the preaching of God’s Word. Others were very particular, such as additional workers for Caraway Street. One request was for the elder meeting in June 1998. I had no idea about that one so I assumed that whatever the need was, it must have been met. On and on we went, covering the church, the staff, and also Oak Park Christian Academy. Some of the requests went back to 1995. I marveled as I thought about the faithfulness of these two servants of Christ laboring in prayer on our behalf from the “Bird’s Head” coastline of Irian Jaya.
I asked Bob when he and Amber started writing down prayer requests and noting the answers. He told me they started in 1971 because “we were bored with our prayer life. It seemed like we prayed and prayed but never heard about any answers.” So 30 years ago they began writing down specific requests. Whenever they agreed to pray for something or someone, they decided to go back later and find out how God had answered their prayers. And that’s why they had come to my office for one final visit. They wanted to know what God had done through their prayers. Bob told me that after three decades of doing this, they have discovered that approximately 89% of their prayers are answered Yes, 2% are answered No, and about 9% are answered Not Yet. “It’s hard to argue with that,” he said with a smile. Bob is right. It is hard to argue with that.
Keeping Track of God’s Answers
I hesitate to share their story because it can be so easily misused. Some people may think that prayer is like playing some giant slot machine in the sky. And others may think it unspiritual to tally the answers to your prayers. I don’t think the percentage matters but I do think Bob and Amber Leland have found a practical solution to the problem of boredom in prayer. They simply keep track of God’s answers. That is certainly biblical. The percentages just make the story memorable. Why have so many of their prayers been answered? I think it’s because Bob and Amber have dedicated themselves to knowing and doing the will of God. As they have delighted themselves in the Lord, his desires have become part of their desires so that when they pray, they are truly praying according to God’s will. Why should we be surprised when God answers our prayers when we pray in his will? Should we not expect God to keep his Word? Perhaps we would all benefit by keeping a record of our prayers and God’s answers. Certainly this is in the spirit of Jesus who said, “Ask and you will receive” (Matthew 7:7).
The converted slave-trader John Newton expressed this truth in these words from an old hymn: “Thou art coming to a King, large petitions with thee bring; for His grace and power are such, none can ever ask too much.”
I come now to the bottom line and it is very 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. Come boldly. Come often. Come to the throne of grace and pour out your heart to God. You will not be turned away. Amen.