On the Plains of Moab Blog
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August 16, 2011, 9:17 AM

When Preaching Gets Personal

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

(Heb. 4:14-16 ESV) 

This passage that I preached on this past Sunday was an introduction to the heart of the "sermon" that we find in Hebrews.  The introduction begins a long teaching on Christ, our great high priest.  The section is closed with very similar wording in Heb. 10:19-23 (ESV):

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

These two passages form a literary bookend known as an inclusio.  This inclusio repeats the words that we are to store in our hearts about God and our great high priest, Christ.  We do indeed have a sympathetic, empathetic high priest.  We can with confidence hold fast our confession of God's goodness in Christ.  We can and should and must come boldly before the throne of grace to find mercy and favor.

Do it!  Don't hesitate.  Don't vacillate.  Don't doubt.  No matter what!

You did not know it at the time -- but the sermon's primary needy heart wasn't in the pews this past Sunday, but the man who was encouraging you towards this disposition with these outrageous propositions.

Yeah, me.

Last Thursday, August 11th at 10:00 AM, I got a phone call that sent me into a state of shock.  The pediatric doctor who had been evaluating Noelle called...directly.  No message from the receptionist or nurse.  The doctor.  His voice was slow, deliberate and painful.  "I'm so sorry Mr. Smith.  Your daughter has tested positive for HIV."  From there on out, it felt like he was the undertaker gathering information for funeral arrangements.

I had been in a light, upbeat mood when I walked into church that morning.  Now, all I wanted to do was get out of the building and isolate myself.  I drove out of the church parking lot in a cloud of fear, anger and bitterness.  I went home and sat in stunned silence -- tears flowing, and the questions starting to come fast and furious out of my mouth towards God.  "Why God?  I have been faithful in proclaiming your goodness, week after week.  I have never lied about you.  I may be a flawed practitioner of the holiness I seek -- but I have never lied in the pulpit.  I proclaim you as a gracious, merciful God.  Why this little girl?  Why this kick in the stomach to a family trying to do the right thing?  Why this slap in the face to my wife who has pursued this out of her love for you?!"

I wondered how I was going to be able to step in the pulpit on Sunday.  My family was in Williamsburg, and here I was, alone.  Alone with my thoughts.  Shannon had spoken with the doctor earlier, so she knew as well.  And she was miserable.  The kids did not know.  They were having a great vacation.  Little Noelle only knew that we were subjecting her to some awful needle sticks at the doctor -- trying desperately to get blood from her little arms.

On Friday, I did not do anything.  I did not want to do anything.  I called a couple of trusted friends out of town -- my former pastor and a good buddy from seminary.  But, I broke down and couldn't even get the words out.  By Saturday, I was starting to get my brain around this thing.  The family came home.  I was beginning to get used to the idea that our lives were going to change.  I was able to call up the seminary friend, and simply say, "Brad, we need a miracle.  Just pray for it."

Our prayer:  We need a false positive!  Either that, or make us more like Jesus through this.  And Lord, wherever this goes -- thank you that we can take care of this little girl.  Thank you that nobody can love her the way we will love her.

On Sunday afternoon, we got yet another call from the doctor.  On Sunday!  Oh no!  (That was our collective groan.)   However, this time, it was better news.  The second, more specific test -- the western blot - returned a negative result.  We are told that the screen that returned the positive was a highly sensitive test -- which made it entirely possible to get a false positive.  Noelle had tested negative on her HIV screen in China!

Yesterday, we took the family to the infectious disease specialist.  The doctor took a look at our records and then, calmly and confidently and reassuringly said, "I think your daughter is going to be fine.  Don't worry.  But I know you will."  "I've never seen a negative western blot lead to a positive later on."  The next step, he said, was to do a final, definitive test, which is an actual search for the virus in her body.  If this test comes back negative -- Noelle will be declared healthy in regard to HIV.  Period.  End of subject.

Of course, Noelle did not appreciate being stuck again!  But, we were so relieved.

We covet your prayers this week as we await the final results, which will be in on Friday.  The doctor seems pretty sure.  But we know that we are in the hands of the one who has beckoned us to draw near to him -- to come boldly before the throne of grace in our time of need. 



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