And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God’, and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’ For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
‘This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds’,
he also adds,
‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary 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 to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
As many of you who have traveled abroad know all too well – the experience of an unfamiliar culture is, to say the least, shocking. My future sister-in-law, my younger brother’s fiancé has recently immigrated to the US from Korea and is feeling this literal culture-shock. Though she is pretty fluent in the English language, and has generally “studied” US American culture through books, I have sensed that from the moment she stepped off the plane, it has been somewhat of an adjustment, a struggle, even with those little things that hardly ever cross our minds, like what is available at a grocery store or figuring out the postal system. The other day she text-ed me asking if there was a particular radish sold at the Giant because she was having difficulty finding it. I know, trying to navigate all the difficulties with language and communication, all the slang and idioms, the humor, along with the unique manifestations of culture in terms of food, literature, and music…it is a lot. It’s one thing if you have an opportunity to be immersed in a new culture…to hear the chatter of people on the streets, to inhale the smells of various spices and foods, to see all the traffic, the architecture, and natural scenery, but very much another experience to try to read and study to understand it. There is simply a disconnect…a distance…
And still, even now, whenever I read anything in the Bible, it feels, too, like I’ve just stepped off a plane in a very different country. The writer of Hebrews in this particular passage is describing something very specific about Jewish culture, and one that even with background information makes little sense. Priests? Animal sacrifices? Covenants? One resource offers this somewhat helpful tidbit about the yearly sacrifice: “In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the high priest conducted an elaborate sacrificial ceremony on Yom Kippur. Clothed in white linen, he successively confessed his own sins, the sins of priest, and the sins of the people, then entered the Holy of Holies, the place where God made his dwelling, in the Temple. It was the only day this was permissible, and the priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice and offer incense. He then sent a goat (the ‘scapegoat’) into the wilderness, where it was driven to its death, to symbolically carry away the sins of Israel.”
Now, stay with me, I see some glazed over eyes already…In other words, the people had this ritual of sacrifice, a very specific way of seeking God’s forgiveness for their sins, so that their relationships with God could be made whole and right. This ritual was ingrained in them. But, the irony – and this may or may not have crossed their minds – as the writer of Hebrews points out is that the sacrifice technically didn’t “work,” – it didn’t satisfy the requirement or necessity because…essentially, they were required to do it again and again and again every year.
It makes me think of working out on a treadmill at the Y, whether walking or running, but either way, working hard, and not feeling really satisfied because I am actually not really getting anywhere. Oh sure, the health benefits are there, and it’s nice especially on those days it’s windy or rainy and I’d rather be indoors, but it isn’t as gratifying as hitting the pavement with a real start and finish. It’s kind of a strange sight, driving by that huge window and seeing a couple dozen people all focused and sweating it out on the elliptical machines. It’s not too unlike watching a hamster in a wheel huffing and puffing, its little legs going so fast, but stuck in the same spot, doing the same thing over and over and over again. In some ways, it’s kind of sad, and I can’t help but feel sorry for that hamster sometimes, because once in a while I feel like one, too…how many of us feel like we’re on a treadmill…maybe in our jobs, in our relationships, in our families, with our spouses, our kids, maybe with our faith, taking careful, deliberate step by step by step, thinking we’re making a lot of headway, but realizing at the end we haven’t gotten very far, in fact, we’re in the exact same position as when we began 15, 20, 30 minutes ago…a week, a couple of months, a few…decades…
And so this is where the writer of Hebrews comes in to say to those who are stuck in that routine, who in the writer’s eyes are basically involved in a system that is obsolete now: NO MORE! Because Jesus Christ…the perfect high priest…and perfect sacrifice has done away with the need for it. Notice that, as another pastor writes, Christ is “seated,” which is in stark contrast to the standing of the priests; it implies that Christ’s work is truly complete. Christ’s one sacrifice means no more sacrifices. No more sins. No more separation.
So, most likely, what I’m saying to you isn’t really terribly exciting news because we’ve heard this story before, I’m thinking in particular on Easter, the moment Jesus says with his last breath, “It is finished,” and the curtain is dramatically torn to shreds, but do you know that really we hear these words every Sunday during every worship service? It’s at the very beginning, right after the Prayer of Confession, and after we sing the Gloria Patri…it is the “Assurance of Pardon.” One of my favorite pastors describes it in this way, looking at the Letter of Hebrews as a sermon, and the writer – a preacher: “The Preacher is driving home the central claim of the sermon, and one could think of this section as a repeated assurance of pardon: In Jesus Christ you are forgiven; In Jesus Christ you are forgiven; In Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”
How many of us might feel like we are on a treadmill when it comes to our relationships and dealing with arguments, conflicts, disagreements…whether with friends or family or spouses…how many times a day do we apologize for one thing or another? My husband, Andy, will say that for every apology I make to him, he makes maybe on average 40-50 to me. I hate to admit that I am terrible at saying, “I’m sorry” to him, maybe it’s pride, laziness, selfishness. I’ll even do anything else to avoid saying, “I’m sorry,” I’ll buy him a favorite magazine from Barnes and Noble, I’ll do some extra cleaning around the house especially the things he dislikes the most, I’ll cook a favorite meal or make something he calls “the magic cookie,” which is some kind of baked-chocolate-nutty-coconut goodness that his mother made for him throughout his childhood. But, I’ve noticed that none of it, not even the magic cookies, does it…for him…and actually, for me either. There’s just something about that “I’m sorry,” that makes it right. But, it’s more than the “I’m sorry,”…It’s the underlying confidence, that is, the belief and trust in our commitment and love for each other that ultimately makes that “I’m sorry” really work each time.
And so it is in a way with our relationships with God. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, that one perfect sacrifice, does the work of the one ultimate “I’m sorry,” making our relationship with God completely right. It is the perfect expression of commitment and love that God has towards us so that all our “sorry’s,” for those little things…those big things…all our prayers of confession…in essence they “work,”…but they work not in the sense that somehow we’ve done something to make God feel a certain way towards us again; they works on us, so that we can really receive what it means when we hear those words, “In Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” It’s hard to receive forgiveness, to make that relationship right again when I am childishly holding onto that “I’m sorry,” and doing anything and everything else to avoid it, and it is amazingly as simple with God…and supposed to be with God’s community. In every community, whether it’s a town, or neighborhood, even a family, there is a unique culture, too, with traditions, and histories, rituals, and “ways that things are done.” In various Spanish speaking cities there’s the strange, and not terribly humane Running of the Bulls, then there’s the friend I have who does a reading of the Christmas Carol every year at the local Baptist church, and then I love the ones that are made up like on Seinfeld, the Costanzas do something called Festivus, which involves the airing of grievances and various feats of strength. Here in our own town, of course, we are rapidly approaching the turkey day tradition of reliving the rivalry between Easton and Phillipsburg in football, and there is so much that culturally surrounds this day, and not just bonfires and powderpuff games. Likewise, in God’s community, we have a distinct “culture,” too, there are celebrations we have during certain seasons, words that we hear and say over and over, and commitments that we live out towards each other and those around us. It is here that we solidify our confidence, again, our belief and trust that God is committed to us, and has proved that to us once for all in Jesus Christ.
I had originally intended to go with the community theme, and talk in general about journeying together, authentic connection, and that daily commitment to one another, but I talk about it all the time. It is still important here, though I felt more compelled instead by what is supposed to be the root of our culture here in the church, our community, that is, Christ, and the love God shows us in Christ. We are living in a new and strange world-culture right now where despite all the technology of Twitter and text-ing, people feel a disconnect and a distance…and religion is a peripheral phenomenon, for some an outdated mode of spirituality, for others, a standard for basic morals, and for others still, an intellectual pursuit. But, as William Barclay writes, “to some, religion is access to God. It is that which removes the barriers and opens the door to his living presence. That is what religion was to the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. His mind was dominated with that idea. He found in Christ the one person who could take him into the very presence of God. His whole idea of religion is summed up in the great passage in Hebrews 10:19-22…If the writer to the Hebrews had one text, it was: ‘Let us draw near…’”
Friends, God has drawn near to us. God has made the Holy of Holies here in our hearts. God has made his home here. Let us in tenderness and vulnerability consider how we may be home to each other, to encourage one another in all our travels and journeys, and do so courageously and faithfully. And as we near the end of this liturgical year, may it be with a bright vision of Christ seated at God’s right hand, not just in the presence of God, but in glorious exaltation, as the King…even as we celebrate Christ the King Sunday next week. May we leave today with the joy and certainty, the confidence, the belief and trust, that God longs for us to draw near to the his throne of grace, a sanctuary of abundant life and light, the deepest satisfaction, and a wholeness only found in true connection through Jesus Christ, the highest priest and the most perfect sacrifice…a place where things are right. Amen.