The Lost Coin & the Znekb

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Remember Christ’s parable of the lost coin in Luke 15?

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Lk. 15: 8-10)

I love the happy ending, but I never quite connected with the bit about calling the friends and neighbors in to celebrate over a lost coin. After all, a silver coin was a drachma, “comparatively but of small value” as Matthew Henry puts it in his Commentary; it wasn’t even a day’s wages like, say, a denarius of the time.

But if the silver coin had a sentimental value far outweighing its monetary worth, this would surely explain the rejoicing that followed its discovery.

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H. V. Morton’s “In the Steps of the Master” (1932) puts the story in the context of a tradition that dates back to Biblical times and continued up until the middle 20th century if it doesn’t still continue to this day. In Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem, he tells of meeting a poor field-worker’s family whose daughter showed him her wedding dress, a heavily embroidered garment worn with a high headdress and its flowing white veil. The headdress is like something out of a medieval picture book or a fairy tale except that “the little tower from which [the veil] hangs is a small red fez held upright on the head by two cords which tie beneath the chin. All around this little fez are sewn row upon row of coins. The znekb [chain] hangs from the headdress and contains ten coins with a central pendant.”

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All the coins would compose the bride’s dowry but the znekb with its pendant would be cherished by the bride all her life as a gold wedding necklace or ring would be today. For her, the ten coins on her wedding chain would be worth more than money. And the loss of even one of the coins would be disastrous. If I lost my wedding ring today, I would turn the house over, searching into the night until I found it, and my friends and family would know how distraught I was. They would also be the first to “rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

Every woman in the crowd hearing these words of Jesus would have known exactly what he meant. What would have surprised them is that Jesus was portraying God’s pursuit of every lost sinner and His overflowing joy over every sinner’s repentance and salvation as a uniquely personal love and joy.

This parable follows that of the lost sheep and is the second of three in Luke 15. You won’t be surprised that the next parable is that of the prodigal son. We who are Christians have this inexpressible comfort, that we belong to Christ Jesus who when we were dead in sin gave us new life. As He has said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10: 28-30)

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

The Two Witnesses

The symbolism of the “two witnesses” in Revelation 11 has challenged the imagination of many a theologian. But if you go for the clearest and most simple meaning behind the text given its allusions to Moses and Elijah, it is one of the most comforting and emboldening passages for Christians during difficult times.

Revelation 11:3-13 (ESV)

“And I [Jesus] will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”

These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth. But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them. And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.

The symbols of the two witnesses, the two olive trees, and the two lampstands actually refer to the same thing: those belonging to Christ Jesus throughout the church age, symbolized by the “1,260 days” or 3½ years. Christians are endowed metaphorically with the power of an Elijah, who called down fire from heaven, and Moses, who decreed plagues on Pharaoh’s Egypt, because Christians are witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which in its rejection brings judgment on the world.

But why is a witnessing Christian represented by two figures, and specifically Moses and Elijah? Perhaps because together they stand for the word of God, the Bible, composed of the two covenants or testaments, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The whole of the Old Testament with its prophecies regarding Jesus is represented by Moses, through whom God gave the Law. The New Testament is represented by Elijah in whose spirit John the Baptist “came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him” (John 1: 7): “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29). It was John who announced the coming of Christ, called the people to repentance, and baptized Him in preparation for His ministry and whose life, death, resurrection, ascension and immanent return the whole of the New Testament bears witness to. In Matthew 11: 13-15, Jesus Himself said,

“For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

So then, we as the Church, who witness to the Lord Jesus Christ, go not by our own testimony alone but testimony rooted in the Bible. In Luke 24: 45, before Jesus sent His disciples out into all the nations to proclaim the gospel, He first “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” We must pray for the same while spending much labor studying God’s word, and relying not on our own ability but in the  power of the Holy Spirit.

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Antonio Ciseri, “Ecce homo!” 1871.

As has happened in various times and places throughout history, the world will rise up against the church and try to stifle the witnessing of the Gospel and will even think it has won, but inevitably, the people of God will rise up and preach the Gospel again and again because they have within them the Holy Spirit of God. And though individual Christians may be killed, as indeed Jesus suffered and died but rose again from the dead, their victory is assured because they will be taken up to heaven to await the final resurrection with the second coming of Christ and the end of the age.

In terrifying times such as these when chaos and evil seem to have the upper hand, our Lord Jesus gives us such a revelation to strengthen our faith, to remind us that He is sovereign, and to encourage us to keep preaching the Gospel, to ourselves, to each other, and to our friends and neighbors. This is not only our calling, it is the supreme honor that we have been given through the Holy Spirit, even as Moses and Elijah in their times.

Most Christians try to avoid the book of Revelation. It’s there, they know it’s there, but the images of beasts and bowls and trumpets and signs are too complicated and unreal to bother with. If this is your view as well, I encourage you to take another look at Revelation.¹ You don’t have to understand the significance of every symbol, beyond recognizing that each series of visions cover the same sweep of history from Christ’s birth to the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.

It is a revelation given by Jesus Christ, as the apostle John tells us, to strengthen us in our mission of spreading the Gospel and keep us firm in our faith by reminding us that whatever the course of human events, in the end, we will emerge victorious because of the One who is the Alpha and Omega, and holds us firmly in His hand.


For more on Revelation 11, see “Two Witnesses, Olive Trees, and Lampstands.”

*All Scripture quotations from NASB unless otherwise cited.

¹A helpful start may be a series of sermons given at All Souls Church, Langham Place, entitled, “The Future Belongs to Jesus”.

What Then Shall We Do?

It’s the question the people who were flocking to hear John the Baptist wanted answered in the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke. In our rush to get past the account of John’s ministry to read about Jesus, we can sometimes overlook some important and practical truths that John – “the voice crying in the wilderness” of the world – has to say to us.

As the forerunner of the Christ and one called to “prepare the way of the Lord,” John was going around the region of the Jordan River baptizing and preaching “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He warned those who came to listen of the coming judgment of God and he cautioned them that God demanded more than just lip service to His laws but rather they must “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Continue reading “What Then Shall We Do?”

… and on Earth, SHALOM!

angels-announcing-the-birth-of-our-savior-1790.jpg!Blog

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” …. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:13-14, 20)

Shalom!

Well. Here it is: the day after Christmas. I don’t know about you but the day after Christmas is when you get back to “real life” and its mundane details and there’s the news as usual, mostly bad as usual, and the afterglow of celebration fades into the incessant strife and violence borne of hatred between peoples, and sickness and warfare and want continue unimpeded.

Continue reading “… and on Earth, SHALOM!”

Peace on Earth

[Haiku Horizons prompt “give”]

One man’s blood gives peace
where Abel’s cries rend hearts: Christ’s,
our Immanuel

The crimes of our sins
the Holy God came to for-
give here on the Cross

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:24)


Image of Traditional Christmas card, circa 1880’s

A Compass, A Guide, the Revelation of God

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I’ve heard and read many sermons on why we should read God’s Word daily but I’ve never heard it put any better than this:

The Bible reveals the mind of God, the state of man,

the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers.

Its doctrines are holy,

its precepts binding,

its histories are true,

its decisions are immutable.

Read it to be wise, believe it to be safe, and practice it to be holy.

It contains light to direct you, food to support you, and comfort to cheer you.

It is the traveler’s map, the pilgrim’s staff,

the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword,

and the Christian’s charter.

Here, Heaven is opened and the gates of hell disclosed.

Christ is its grand subject, our good its design, the glory of God its end.

It should fill your memory, rule your heart, and guide the feet.

Read it slowly, frequently, and prayerfully. It is given in life,

will be opened in the judgment, and will be remembered forever.

It involves the highest responsibility, will reward the greatest labor,

and will condemn all those who trifle with its sacred contents.

Owned, it is riches; studied, it is wisdom; trusted, it is salvation;

loved, it is character; and obeyed, it is power.

Author Unknown


 Deuteronomy 29:29  
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

Photo: Gutenberg Bible (one of forty-nine Gutenberg Bibles; this is one of 21 that are complete with no missing pages), U.S. Library of Congress

Lemuel and Qoheleth

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Two kings there were in ancient times, Lemuel and Qoheleth. They lived in neighboring lands and in the days of their boyhood had been eager to visit one another under the indulgent eyes of their parents. As the years rolled by, however, the duties of their royal crowns served to keep them apart till, in the shadow of their old age, they met again under the cedar trees where once they had played.

As they walked together, they talked of many things, of perils in kingship and of victories in war, of great gain and of equally great loss. They talked as easily and naturally as if there had been no lengthy passage of time since their childhood rambles. At length the evening shadows fell and they paused to listen to the sound of running water from a nearby stream and the whisper of light breezes among the forest ferns and leaves.

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Jane Austen & Marilynne Robinson: Two Quotes

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An 1804 watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister Cassaa

Jane Austen,  Mansfield Park:

Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self–denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.

Bitterly did he deplore a deficiency which now he could scarcely comprehend to have been possible. Wretchedly did he feel, that with all the cost and care of an anxious and expensive education, he had brought up his daughters without their understanding their first duties, or his being acquainted with their character and temper.

Continue reading “Jane Austen & Marilynne Robinson: Two Quotes”

Note to Self: Just for Today

This_is_the_Day__4f204f1d5e8a4Have you ever wanted to write a letter to your younger self? Not anything complicated. Just a simple note because here you are on the other side of darkness and the sun’s out and there’s so much to look forward to and so much to be grateful for.

I looked back at my younger self today and wished I had lived my life more fully, that is, conscious of God’s presence, as one who is living coram Deo, before the face of God.

I would like to tell her to commit each day to Him, because He’s the author; to give each moment to Him, because His hand is in it; to take each task however trivial and do it as for Him, because He assigned it to me; and to see in the darkness the same glory that I see in the light, because He never leaves or forsakes me.

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The Agony of Weakness

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Augustine of Hippo

The words slipped out of my mouth before I could stop them. They were ugly and they came from the very gates of hell as I spit them out at the one I loved most in the world.

They had all the backing of my frustration, my feeling that I had been pushed to the limits of my endurance in an untenable situation. And after they leapt out into the open, I cringed in shame and despair at the pain I had caused, loathing myself, and most of all, feeling crushed by the weakness and frailty of my flesh, my corrupt human nature.

I was unworthy of the beloved standing before me, hurt and disappointed, unworthy of the love that I knew would forgive me the next moment. Worse still, I was unworthy of the Holy Spirit who dwelt in me, having been born again by that same Spirit through God-given faith in Christ Jesus, to whom I had been united.

I knew better. I was committed to a life of holiness through union with Christ. I knew I had been called to

“walk by the Spirit, and . . . not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Galatians 5:16-17)

As part of the body of Christ, the church, had not Christ Himself proclaimed that the very “gates of hell shall not prevail against it”? (Matthew 16:18)

It wasn’t the first time I had failed that day to “walk by the Spirit” and I knew it would not be the last. But each time I did, I was bitterly aware that I cut myself off from the joy and strength of my salvation. My life became brittle and dry without the well-spring of the Holy Spirit’s felt presence, as I had once again grieved Him.

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Renoir and Dickens: Two Quotes

 

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Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859):

 It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

 

 

363px-Auguste_Renoir_-_Young_Girls_at_the_Piano_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe great French artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, suffered so much from rheumatoid arthritis that it was difficult for him to paint due to progressive deformities in his hands and shoulders. The painting on the left, “Young Girls at the Piano” (1892), was done when he first developed the disease.

Yet when a friend said, “You have done enough. Why do you torture yourself?” Renoir replied, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

 

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The Sacrifice

(A retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac)

 

Abraham and Isaac, Ferdinand von Olivier (1817)
Abraham and Isaac, Ferdinand von Olivier (1817)

A weary journey, a wakeful night,

They left their camp before daylight

An old man carrying the weight of years

Wrinkled cheeks wet with tears

At hearing the young boy at his side

Prattle on with childish pride

That he alone had been chosen

To help his father on this mission.

 

“Are we going to build the altar ourselves?

While you carry the fire, can I gather the stones?

God will be pleased with our sacrifice, Father,

Only where is the lamb we need for the slaughter?”

Abraham answered Isaac, his child of promise,

Miracle-born past child-bearing years,

“These questions can wait, just stay by my side,

And carry the wood, the rest God will provide.”

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You Are Not Alone

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I don’t think that anything separates us from others, even those closest to us, as much as illness, pain, or grief. There is a loneliness that sets in that builds a wall around us. It’s an invisible barrier. We can’t get out and they can’t get in. And it boils down to this. We are alone. Isolated. Cut off in some fundamental sense from where they are, because the space where we are is miles away, miles measured in pain and sorrow.

Here, in this space, only one Person can enter, can span that distance, and it is the man of sorrows, Christ Jesus. Still it is not his acquaintance with grief or pain that travels the distance to where we are. He has, in fact, never left us nor forsaken us, since neither “height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). No distress. No sorrow. No pain. No illness. Nothing can separate us from him who loves us. Continue reading “You Are Not Alone”

Job’s Wife Speaks

Inspired by the Georges de La Tour painting below, the following poem attempts to give an added voice to the expressive eloquence of Tour’s work by “unmuting” Job’s wife. As a character in the book of Job, his wife is not prominent but, perhaps, delivers the most bitter blow to Job. Through her, we hear the voice of Satan speaking most directly to Job when she asks,  “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). In the midst of his sufferings, I believe Job’s greatest challenge was to withstand this voice and choose to trust God.

Job Mocked by his Wife Georges de La Tour (17th c.)
Job Mocked by his Wife
Georges de La Tour (17th c.)

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Leave-takings

 

Savannah Church Door

It is no wonder that Virginia Woolf entitled a collection of essays on writing “A Room of One’s Own” since not only does a writer’s room occupy a space all its own, like a creative work or an individual’s life, but it maintains the boundaries of that space with enclosing walls formed at its conception. Only a doorway admits entrance or exit both to the occupant and visitor. And whatever that “room” may be, however modest or grand, private or public, man-made or natural, we leave one room only to enter another which in turn we leave for another. It is this sense of leave-taking that we see played out in our lives and in our occupations, but also in the interior spaces of the imagination as artists and storytellers, scholars, and critics.

In our lives, we pass through places, events, times, and histories, our own history intersecting with others’, passing from one day to the next until time stops. As writers we leave the “real” world with its ready-made structures and demands into a self-created world which may or may not bear a resemblance to any we have known.

But leave-taking in its many forms is not an easy job, and the dynamics of its interplay between the leaving of one room for another creates an uneasy tension.

There is an entrance that must be made and, more often than not, what we see is a closed door. Maybe even locked. Perhaps only slammed shut by an unceremoniously hostile exit echoing with the finality of rejection. It doesn’t matter that you yourself may have slammed it shut, stung by criticism or scorn or frustration at fruitless effort. The closed door dares you to approach it once more and make your entrance.

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MARANATHA: Our Lord Has Come!/Come, Lord!

μαρὰν ἀθά/μαρανα θα

 

מרנא תא                 מרן אתא

μαρὰν ἀθά                   μαρανα θα

maran ‘athâ                maranâ thâ

Our Lord has come!      Come, Lord!

 Textually, you can’t get more interesting than this. Depending on the biblical translation you rely upon, you will find the verse above from  1 Corinthians 6:22 written either in the preterite or the imperative sense. Doctrinally, it makes very little difference as I found when looking up the original transliterated term “maranatha,” little realizing the bird’s nest of textual criticism I had stumbled upon.

As usual, it all started with Wikipedia and this interesting comment:

“In general, the recent interpretation has been to select the command option (“Come, Lord!”), changing older decisions to follow the preterite option (“Our Lord has come”) as found in the ancient Aramaic Peshitta, in the Latin Clementine Vulgate, in the Greek Byzantine texts, Textus Receptus, critical Greek texts like Westcott and Hort, Tischendorf, Cambridge, etc., and in the English translations like the King James Version, the Finnish Raamattu, etc. One reason the change from the previous scholarly view has occurred is that the P46 papyrus (ca. A.D. 200) divides it as μαρανα θα (“marana tha”).”

You see, the extant manuscripts of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians all provide a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic for this particular expression, so that depending on how the translator chooses to split the transliteration, maran ‘athâ or maranâ thâ, the meaning will be strikingly different.

Continue reading “MARANATHA: Our Lord Has Come!/Come, Lord!”

Arise, arise!

Courtesy Earth Observatory, NASA

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

It’s raining outside, which is fitting even in ordinary circumstances. Given my melancholic nature, the rain perversely cheers me, somehow exteriorizing a sadness, releasing her from her confinement, freeing me up for a temporary lightheartedness. This new guest is not unwelcome but strangely enough, she only increases my contemplation of the melancholic and sorrowful, the cloud and the rain, but with an optimism that settles into a sense of tranquility and peace.

It’s not that whatever unsettled me has been removed: the circumstance, the sin, the pain, the fear, whatever it may be. The storm has come. The blows have fallen. I am brought low. And there is only One who can raise me yet again from the dust, the man of heaven (1 Cor. 15:48), Christ Jesus.

But when you are in a place so far from heaven that Light seems a distant dream – the world, anyone? – and darkness seems the norm, you search only as a beggar in garments stained by a life of ugly words and deeds. You hardly dare approach the king of heaven. You’re ashamed to ask even for the crumbs that fall off his children’s tables. Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) in her poem “The Lowest Place” cries out,

Give me the lowest place: not that I dare
Ask for that lowest place, but Thou hast died
That I might live and share
Thy glory by Thy side.

Give me the lowest place: or if for me
That lowest place be too high, make one more low
Where I may sit and see
My God and love Thee so.

Though Scripture tells us to boldly approach the throne of grace, we know the dust and ashes of repentance are not scorned, indeed necessary, given our place as Christian pilgrims, simul justus et peccator, simultaneously righteous and sinner. Did not Jesus himself say that the man who dared not even raise his eyes to heaven but pleaded for mercy went home forgiven in contrast to the bold Pharisee?

Yet it was not the posture of the man per se, that is, the lowliness of his approach, that Christ was applauding, it was his raw honesty, untainted by excuses or crass self-righteousness. There is no hypocrisy here in this place of lowness. Just rank need. The need for God’s mercy.

That this mercy, and not just mercy, but love, is freely given into the hands of beseeching faith is what takes my breath away. That God through Jesus accepts my broken heart, forgives, mends, heals, comforts, and loves is pure unfettered grace. It’s like throwing open the doors of a palace to a destitute woman and saying, “It’s yours now. It’s yours forever.” George Herbert (17th c.) writes in “The Dawning”:

Arise sad heart; if thou dost not withstand,

Christ’s resurrection thine may be;

Do not by hanging down break from the hand,

Which as it riseth, raiseth thee;

Arise, arise!

“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. 4:16)