A sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 10: 11-25; Mark 13:1-8
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”
We are in the latter days of the season after Pentecost. Advent will soon be upon us. While the stores are already putting up Christmas decorations and the cooking channel is giving us tips on cooking the perfect bird for Thanksgiving, the readings of the church year pay no heed to all this premature business.
Indeed, the readings toward the end of the lectionary cycle seem to take on real gravity, featuring some of the most important passages in all of Scripture, perhaps in preparation for Advent, a season of expectation.
The collect appointed for today is oft quoted whenever we as Episcopalians gather to study the scriptures, and it gives anyone reading it a glimpse into how we in fact treat the scriptures.
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.
We view Scripture as God-caused, for our learning, and a source of hope for us. We have a strong relationship with the Holy Scriptures, despite what our detractors may say.
The reading from Hebrews today is part of a long discourse on the nature of the high priest and the identification of Jesus as the perfect and eternal high priest. We have been tracing much of this discourse during our last few weeks of Epistle readings.
The passage today is rich with imagery and powerful language describing Jesus as this ultimate High Priest – there is no other, nor is there any need for another.
The author of Hebrews has spent considerable time comparing and contrasting the old levitical priesthood of the Jews with its sacrificial system and ritual laws with the priesthood of Christ that brought the office to perfection.
In the first words of today’s reading we almost hear the frustration of the writer considering that the high priest’s job was never done. “Every priest stands day after day…offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”
The levitical priesthood as central as it was to the Jewish nation and religious life could offer nothing beyond a temporary “fix” for sins. A man would bring an animal to be sacrificed on the altar of the temple by the high priest and thereby be forgiven his sins and the sins of his family. But this was only temporary. The same man, indeed the entire nation of Israel would have to repeatedly make sacrifices in order to obtain forgiveness.
Very simply, the law and its system of sacrifices left the people unfulfilled.
What a contrast, then, when it is compared with the High Priesthood of Christ.
He is both the High Priest and the sacrifice. Recall on Good Friday when Jesus dies on the cross that the veil in the temple is ripped in two. This act basically puts the high priests out of a job. Access to God is now complete and available to all. The levitical system of ritual cleanness and sacrifices for sin is obsolete.
In the debate leading up to and following General Convention, the levitical law has come rushing to the fore once again. There are those who seem to believe that at least part of it still has authority in our lives, while others find very little relevance for these rituals and codes in our everyday lives.
It is not proper to say that the Law has been done away with. Jesus himself said that he came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. He has met the demands of the Law once and for all in himself. And we who are baptized into his death and celebrate his resurrection, we share in those benefits. Not just once, but for all time.
This work that Christ did on the cross is once and for all. Note that while the priest stands day after day in the first verse of our reading, when Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for sin, once for all time, he then sat down at God’s right hand. As he himself said from the cross – It is finished.
What sets Christ’s work apart from the work of the priests under the Law is explained in this passage. As God promised his people in Jeremiah, the covenant which first had come to the people in the form of the Ten Commandments and later in the Law, would now be written on their hearts.
This is not to say that we have nothing to learn from the Law. Just as our collect suggests this morning, there are principles and truths we can take away from the study of the levitical codes and rituals, but they are not where we draw our hope, nor are they where we find our righteousness.
Whereas the Law was external, focused on physical purity and ritual to make someone right with God, Jesus’ sacrifice means that the purity has finally come within. We need not wash our faces to be acceptable to God – God has already washed our hearts. Whereas Jews had elaborate daily bathing rituals, Baptism, our symbol of new birth, happens only once in our lifetime. This is also very much what happened at the Day of Pentecost – the Holy Spirit came to dwell in our hearts. The same spirit who brooded over the face of the waters in creation and descended upon Christ at his baptism, this same spirit has set up residence in our hearts.
Once men and women needed the external structures and strictures of the Law in order that they might be righteous before God. This Law which had meant only unfulfilled longing to those who lived under its system was now fulfilled in the person of Jesus who “made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.”
This is not to say that we do not need to confess our sins to God. Indeed it is an important moment in our worship together. At the confession, we admit before God our continuing imperfect and our need of grace. Immediately thereafter, having made peace we God, we make peace with each other.
But what once had been an external system of rule keeping has become an internal experience of righteousness. A religion that had been about buildings and rituals became one about God’s people as the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, in peace with each other and at peace with God.
In Mark’s Gospel today we hear Jesus predict the destruction of the Temple. These were very serious words – the Temple was the very center of Jewish worship. Yet Jesus knew that soon he would become the center of worship.
Thus Jesus is the Temple, the High Priest and the Sacrifice all rolled into one. Who did Jesus think he was anyway? God?
A passage like this one in Hebrews ties it all together. It is a cardinal exposition of the atonement. The word atonement was actually invented by a theologian who wanted to express what it meant to be right with God. The word is as simple to understand as it is to spell: at-one-ment.
Because of Christ’s sacrificial death we are at one with God. The war is over; the hostilities ended. We are at peace with God.
The altar before us today does not hold an animal bleeding to death. I will not grab a knife or any other instrument of violence. The altar holds plain bread and simple wine that we hold to mean so much more.
These symbolize the peace we have with God. This is our Thanksgiving dinner, one where we need do nothing except show up. The meal is provided – all we supply is our hunger for it. We approach God in faith being cleansed from all sin.
And now that we are one with God, the writer of Hebrews goes on to tell us, we can have hope – our longings will be fulfilled. We have hope because Christ is faithful.
And then the writer’s attention turns to the congregation of the faithful who have gathered. Provoke one another, he writes. Well, we seem to have no trouble doing that at times. Provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together. Encourage one another.
In short, we need each other. As Bishop Powell is fond of saying, “There is no such thing as a Christian alone.” By our very nature as believers in Christ, we gather together, encouraging one another, challenging one another, being as Christ to one another.
Here we are then, the church – warts and all. The Temple is gone, but we remain, not bound by levitical laws or ritualistic systems, but by the love of Christ. And it is this love that makes us who we are, so that because we are forgiven, together we can become all that God has intended for us to be. Amen.