From the Letter to the Hebrews:
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.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 4:14-16 (NRSV) – February 22, 2013.)
“Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness”! These are among my favorite words in all of Scripture.
Some years ago, my wife and I were members of a congregation in Southern California where the assistant priest was a military chaplain originally from Georgia. He was normally rather soft-spoken, but when he would introduce the traditional (Jacobean English) version of the Lord’s Prayer using the words from The Book of Common Prayer he would emphasize one word: “And now, as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are BO-WULD to say . . . .”
When I read these words from the Letter to the Hebrews, I find myself reading them with his voice and his inflection, “Let us approach . . . with BO-WULDness!” And I actually believe that the author of this letter would approve of that.
Over the years I’ve read a lot of commentaries on this letter and on this particular passage, and it seems to me that when most commentators read verse 16 they lose their focus. A lot of what I have read analyzes the term “throne of grace” and goes off on tangents about the relationship of this image to other depictions of God’s throne in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. That’s all well and good, but the subject of this verse is “us”! It’s an admonition to “us” to come before God’s throne (whatever it may be called) with confidence, with self-assurance, maybe even with a little brashness, with some chutzpah!
About twenty years ago, when I was just starting in my first independent pastorate in a tiny country church (after a two-year curacy in a major metropolitan parish), I read a business management book entitled Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. The authors, James Collins and Jerry Porras, postulated that what made companies truly successful was their adoption of a long-term vision of their future, a vision that is “clear and compelling, serves as a unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit.” They called this vision a “BHAG” (pronounced “BEE-hag”) or “Big Hairy Audacious Goal.” The book made sense to me and to the members of my vestry, and we engaged in a visioning process that established a BHAG for the congregation. It worked, for a while . . . we grew the church from an average attendance of 35 to nearly 150 on a Sunday; our Sunday School attendance increased five-fold; we added a larger parish hall, a couple of offices, and some classrooms to the church building. Sometimes, though, timidity can rear its head and advances can be lost.
In any event, when I read the Letter to the Hebrews telling us to approach God’s thrown with chutzpah I think of BHAGs; let us approach the Lord with big hairy audacious visions, with big hair audacious prayers. While I love the old hymn Before thy throne, O God, we kneel, I think its sentiment of pain and shame is exactly not what this epistle champions. This letter says, “Stand up on your feet! Hold your head high! Take your best shot with God!” In fact, when I read this letter, I think of a song by the rock group Styx:
You’re fooling yourself if you don’t believe it.
You’re kidding yourself if you don’t believe it.
Get up, get back on your feet;
You’re the one they can’t beat and you know it!
Come on, let’s see what you’ve got!
Just take your best shot and don’t blow it!
So then I ask myself, “Why is this epistle in the Lectionary for this time of year? Is this a Lenten sentiment?” Lent is a season in which we take time to rediscover just how much we are loved by God. Knowing that we are loved gives us confidence; it gives us courage for self-reflection and honest self-appraisal. We have the courage to change our minds, to change our hearts. This change, in Greek called metanoia, literally “change of mind” but theologically “repentance”, works an interior change in us to gain freedom from the things that bind us and the actions that diminish us. True repentance gives us the capacity and the confidence to boldly approach the throne of God where we receive what the Father wants to give us – grace and mercy to help in time of need. So, yes, this is a Lenten sentiment.
Approach the throne of grace, take your best shot, and don’t blow it!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.