You may have seen the picture of Maxcy Filer in the paper - he became something of a celebrity awhile back. You see, in May of 1991, Maxcy received his license to practice law before the California bar. That's nothing unusual except that he had graduated from Law School in 1966. He took the bar every year from 1966 to 1991. Twice a year he took it, twice a year he failed it. He took every Bar Review course in Southern California. He would take the test in San Francisco and then drive to Glendale and take the test, then Oakland, the Riverside, then Carson, then Los Angeles, the San Diego. When the test results came out that May 1991, the package arrived at his home and his wife asked, “Don’t you want to open it?” He said, “No, I think I’ll go in and watch Matlock, at least he’s a practicing lawyer.” He went in and parked in front of the television, until he heard his daughter cry out, “Daddy, daddy you passed the Bar!” That was particularly exciting because one of his sons, Kevin had already passed the Bar years earlier. Kevin was used to people coming up to him and saying, “I took the test with your father.” And he would say, “Everyone in the past 25 years has taken the test with my father.” It had gotten so bad that Dear Abby had a column in which she encouraged Maxcy to stop taking the test, saying, “Even if you passed, you’re a disgrace to the legal profession.” Kevin wrote to Dear Abby and asked her to print a retraction, which she did. She printed it, apologized, and said, “Apparently, tenacity pays off.” Remember Maxcy someday when you’re tired of failure and tempted to give up, because you’re never done until you quit.
I think one of our mistakes in parenting is in drilling into our kids that they are destined for success, that they will always win, the goal is always to be first chair, straight A’s, best college. As a society, we have enshrined success as the god to be worshiped. And anything less is failure.
And the problem is that we don’t teach our kids how to fail well. I know, some of you are thinking that’s just heresy – failure is not an option; the moment you start considering failure, you have given up, you have already lost the game.
But the truth is, there will be more failures in our lives than successes. We will experience setbacks and shortcomings and disappointments. There will be times we don’t get the coveted promotion, the expected raise, the account landed. We will have relationships that go sour and friendships lost and even learn there are people who just don’t like us. There are bound to be some financial failures, relationship breakups or devastating medical problems in all of our lives. What then? How do you keep from being crushed by them?
What do you do with failure? How do you live with yourself? Not a day goes by without some kind of a reminder of just how incompetent we are, just how far short of God’s expectations we really fall. And yet, amazingly, God loves us.
Even King David marveled at the wonderful mercy of God. And it is in our scripture reading this morning that the Hebrews writer quotes Psalm 8: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.” (Heb 2:6-8)
David was speaking about humans – men and women – and God’s incredible plan for our place in creation, and marveling at God’s concern and care for his creation, and the value with which he has endowed us. He has crowned us with glory and honor – we are the pinnacle of his creation. And in the garden, God told Adam and Eve that they were to have dominion over all the earth.
But at the same time he says the reality is somewhere short of God’s perfect plan. When sin entered the world, that dominion was broken: “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.”
The writer says, God’s plan was perfect, but the perfect has not come. There is still evil in the world, there is still sin, Satan is still at work. There will come a day when everything is restored to perfection, when everything is brought back in subjection to man, but that day has not arrived, and in the meantime, we will fall short of God’s glory, and even with our best of intentions we will not live perfect lives. We will experience failure.
We see our failure and shortcoming, and we think “What’s the use? God might love me, but I’m not sure why.”
But the Hebrews writer sees in these words of David, the messianic foretelling of God sending his son to earth – for a while, a man, less than angels, then restoring his glory and honor and putting all things beneath him: “But we see Jesus – who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor.” (Heb 2:9) We might fail, but Jesus is perfect.
The only way to get through failure and suffering is perspective – to see Jesus. Focus on ourselves and all is lost.
- Look at the disciples in the boat in the storm. Jesus was asleep and the disciples were rowing and bailing water for their lives, and they were sure they were going to die. In desperation they wake Jesus and cry out, “Don’t you care if we die?” And then what happens? Jesus stands up and says, “Peace, be still!” And the storm ceases and the winds and the waves grow calm.
- Look at Peter walking on the water – he makes a faith-filled request, “Let me come to you on the water.” Jesus says “Come,” and Peter climbs out of the boat. For a second, he is standing on the water, then he sees the wind and the waves and he takes his eyes off of Jesus and down he sinks.
In Hebrews 12 the writer says when the going gets roughest, when you’re sure you can’t take one more step – “fix your eyes on Jesus.”
The writer takes us to the two opposite ends of Jesus’ earthly journey:
“Made a little lower than angels” – there’s the birth.
“Crowned with glory and honor” – there’s the ascension.
This glory and honor didn’t happen because of power and position – after all, you would expect God to deserve all of that. [Picture – Jesus on cross] But his glory and honor are a result of the most unexpected of all sources – vs. 9 – “because he suffered death.” Jesus experienced something so unexpected, that for many of this world it was a scandal, a contradiction that could not be reconciled: a “crucified Messiah?” Everyone knows a Messiah should come like royalty with power, prestige, privilege.
Apparently nobody let Isaiah know – He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:3-6)
Paul wrote, Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, death on a cross! (Phil. 2:5-8)
But it’s not just that Jesus died – everyone dies – but he says, “he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” When we get to vs. 14, we’re going to see what that means.
But something even more remarkable happened at the cross. In suffering and dying, there was something about God that was radically transformed – vs. 10 “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
It sounds almost sacrilegious to speak of the Son of God as needing perfecting in some way – that there was something imperfect or incomplete about him. And yet the writer affirms that through the cross, he became uniquely qualified to perform as the mediator between God and man. Having become a man and having experienced temptation, suffering and death, there was nothing outside of his perfect qualification. No one could accuse him of not understanding – because he does understand.
The writer paints a picture for us of a grand procession – “bringing many sons to glory.”
Jesus is the “author of our salvation” – he’s the point man on patrol. We need one who leads us forth, forging the path, guiding the way.
Not only do we need one to lead forth, but one to walk alongside, to share the journey. It is one thing to have a brave leader (“Isn’t he wonderful,” while at the same time thinking, “I could never be like him.”) But to have a leader who is also an encourager (“You can do it!” “Keep your eyes on the goal,” “We’ll do it together.”)
Then in a series of statements and quotations, our writer tells us that through all this, we are connected with Jesus in a very powerful way:
vss. 11-14: “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, ‘I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in him.’ And again he says, ‘Here am I, and the children God has given me.’ Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity…” (Did you hear how intimately Jesus has connected himself to us? Family, brothers, children, shared humanity.)
It is here in vs. 14 that we find out what he meant back in vs. 10 when he said, “he tasted death for everyone” – “…so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Heb 2:14-15)
It is a scary thing to face death. In fact, there are people who live all their lives terrified of death – they are paralyzed by it, enslaved to it. I’ve met them – you see it in their eyes, you hear it in their voice – the way they cling to this life as though this is all there is – it’s a tragic thing to watch.
But Jesus has been through death for every one of us – and when God broke open that tomb and raised him from the dead, Jesus wrenched the prison keys out of Satan’s hand and freed everyone who has been held a prisoner by it.
That’s why he came – not to help angels, but to help us.
That’s why he says in vss. 17-18 “he had to be made like his brothers in every way in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
We don’t have much experience with high priests, sacrifices and atonement. But we understand sin – we’ve stood in the presence of death. We know that we don’t do very well when left to our own resources. We need someone, not just anyone, but someone who can stand face to face with Satan and say, “He’s mine.” We need a high priest who doesn’t stand self-righteously and look down on us with disgust, but one who knows our weaknesses and loves us anyway – one who knows what it’s like to be us and yet knows what it is that God really wants us to be.
No running things from the control room – clean, sterile, unmuddied by the grime of humanity. No shouting instructions from the sidelines. He entered our existence in every detail – he immersed himself in our humanity. And because he did, we see Jesus, leading us in holy perfection into the presence of the Father.
What do you do with failure? How do you handle sin? You give it to Jesus. Left to our own devices we are lost, living in fear of death. But Jesus changed everything at the cross.
The apostle John said it this way: My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
Failure is inevitable, but failure is not final.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Ignace Paderewski was Poland’s prime minister and also a famous concert pianist. On a concert tour through the United States, one mother, wishing to encourage her young son’s progress at the piano, bought tickets for a Paderewski performance. When the night arrived, they found their seats near the front of the concert hall and eyed the majestic Steinway waiting on stage. Soon the mother was visiting with another woman in the next seat, not realizing the boy had slipped away. When the lights were lowered and the spotlights came on, the audience quieted, and only then did they notice the boy upon the bench, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” His mother gasped, but before she could retrieve her son, the master appeared on stage and quickly moved to the keyboard.
“Don’t quit – keep playing,” he whispered to the boy. Leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part. Then his right arm reached around the other side, encircling the child to add a running obbligato. Together, the old master and the young novice held the crowd mesmerized.
In our lives, filled with mistakes and failure, the master surrounds us and whispers in our ear, time and again, “Don’t quit – keep playing.” And we do, and his perfection augments and supplements our feeble efforts until a work of amazing beauty is created.