11.08.15 Sermon (November 8, 2015) “Once, For All”

posted Jul 5, 2016, 3:45 PM by David Hawkins
Scripture: Hebrews 9:24-28

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own;  for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.  And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Sermon: “Once, For All”

For the months of October and November, we’ve been exploring the Book of Hebrews, which is essentially an extended sermon, written to churches with members who were probably formerly Jews, but who are now Christians. These churches find themselves in need of encouragement, as we sometimes do, and the author of Hebrews offers it, using images and symbols that are sometimes strange to our ways of thinking, sometimes not, but evidently made perfect sense to his audience. 

And today is no different. We find ourselves in the walking into the Holy of Holies, going behind the second veil, into a place even the priests of the temple could not go. Only the high priest was allowed into this space, and even then, only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, on the day when all sins, intended, unintended, known, unknown, real, imagined, the sins of all the people were redeemed. This is a place for which that we, a modern Christians, really have no conception or frame of reference.

In the verses before our scripture today, earlier in chapter 9, we find a tantalizing description of this mysterious place: “Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which there were a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.

…The priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties; but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people.” 

This is the setting for our scripture today, and while we might be somewhat perplexed, the people who originally gathered to hear this sermon knew exactly what the author was talking about. These were the symbols of their ancient faith: The Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, a golden urn with manna, food in the desert, an edible symbol of God’s providence during forty years of wandering. Aaron’s rod, the symbol of the line of Priests, the dry stick of wood that bloomed as a sign of being anointed by God. 

And above all, the mercy seat, the guarantee of God’s forgiveness. The Holiest of Holy items in the Holiest of Holy places. 

But just at the moment that the author points out these holy items, he draws the curtain closed again. “About these things,” he says, “we will not speak.” 

And then he begins his description of Christ’s sanctuary, of Christ’s ministry, of Christ’s sacrifice, that we read today. 

It was this abrupt drawing of the curtain that caught my attention this week. Why would the author stir up his listener’s imagination, just to shut it down again so completely? Why would he remind his audience of the ancient symbols of their faith, just to close the door on them, without further discussion, without further reference, as though they no longer mattered, as though they no longer even existed?

And then I realized that maybe we have more in common with the author’s congregation than we might have realized. We know more about what’s going on in their lives and in their church than we might want to admit. 

Let’s remember that this letter to the Hebrews was written right around the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple. And make no mistake, for Jews and for early Christians, this is a very big deal. Whether you were Jewish or had converted from Judaism, the Temple was the center of communal life. It represented everything that we knew about God. It was the very dwelling place of God. 

For hundreds, for thousands of years, the first and second temples in Jerusalem were everything. The Temple was the central bank, it was the town marketplace, it was the community water cooler, it was the Broadway Brew, it was where everybody went, all the time, for everything. 24/7, 365, there was stuff happening at the Temple. 

And then, in the year 70, all that came to a crashing halt. The temple was destroyed by the Romans, and the priestly rites of sacrifice, the Holy of Holies, all of what Judaism and the earliest forms of Christianity associated with forgiveness and with relationship with God was taken away from them, forever. 

The symbols of their faith were destroyed.

It would be easy for the church to wonder if God was still with them. It would be easy to wonder if there was any chance for redemption, for forgiveness, for relationship, when all the tools which made those things possible had been burned to the ground. 

But then the author of Hebrews reminds them that the temple and the rituals of worship that went on in that place, while valid in their own way, were only copies of what was to come. 

He reminds them that while the temple was beautiful and the symbols it held had meaning, it was made by human hands; that while the rites of sacrifice were redemptive, they were temporary; and that while the things of this world might fall away, our relationship with Jesus Christ is eternal, and cannot be changed by our external circumstances.

And this is where I think we might find some common ground with the Hebrews. 

Because, while we might not participate in temple worship these days, I think that sometimes we still have a temple-style faith. A faith that is dependent on things, on circumstances, a faith that, when these are taken away, when these are changed, we find ourselves rootless, confused, and wondering if God is still with us. 

Now, we might have different words for our Holy of Holies. Our faith might be built on tradition, or doctrine, or it might be built on social assumptions, or cultural identity rather than on priestly sacrifice. Instead of words like temple and arks and golden urns and cherubim and Aaron’s Rod for the symbols of our faith, we might use words like church buildings, styles of worship, hymnals, organs, church programs and choirs. 

Our faith might not depend on the temple, but it might depend on certain interpretation of scripture. It might not depend on blood rituals being performed on the mercy seat, but it might depend on believing certain things about certain people. Our faith might not depend the ancient symbols of Judaism and early Christianity, but if we’re honest, it might depend on more modern symbols that we have constructed for ourselves with human hands over the years.  

And what happens to our belief system when these things are taken away from us? What happens to our faith when the cornerstone of our carefully constructed temple of faith is kicked out of place? What is left of our relationship with God, when those things that represent that relationship are no longer recognizable to us?

A few years ago, I read an interesting book by a former pastor named Rob Bell, a challenging book called “Love Wins.” I say, ‘former pastor’ because after he wrote this book, he sort of needed to step away from being the pastor of his church. It turns out that when you question certain assumptions about faith, people get uneasy. 

And Rob Bell questioned some pretty big assumptions. Assumptions especially about who, exactly was going to Hell. And why. And even, if, they were going to Hell. And when he began questioning these assumptions, his congregation didn’t like it. They didn’t like it one little bit. He was destroying their temple of faith. He was tearing down their Holiest of Holies. And they let him know it. And he had to leave.

Now, I don’t agree with everything that Rob Bell said in his book, but, I absolutely agree with his desire to find a more generous Christianity. I don’t claim to know the most intimate details of God’s will, but I do know that He wants to save everybody, at least, that what it says in 1st Timothy, chapter 2. 

And so the question for me is, and for Rob Bell is, does God always get what God wants? And if he does, how does that work, exactly? In the end, I would rather err on the side of God’s mercy rather than of betting against him getting his way. I’ve decided, for me, to take that risk. 

Over the last couple of years, we have seen some pretty challenging changes in our own denomination, changes that might seem to shake the very foundation of our faith. Changes in the way we think about relationships, changes about how we think about marriage, changes even in the way we think about ordination. 

For some, these changes have been embraced. They represent the recognition of the dignity, gifts, and calling of all people to all areas of community and church life, regardless of gender or sexual identity. 

For others, let’s be honest, these changes are catastrophic, and they might as well represent the destruction of the temple itself.   

But regardless of where we might stand on these changes, they have had a dramatic impact on our church and on our denomination. And while we may not have actually lost our second tent, while we may not have physically had our Holies of Holies taken from us, for many folks, there is still a deep sense of loss, there is still a sense of uncertainty about who we are, and what we believe, or even, how to believe. 

And when we consider other changes that are facing the local church, our church right here and now, this sense of loss multiplies. If, for example, we consider changing the way we worship, or the way we structure our session, if we think about the use of projection equipment, the use of drums and guitars in worship, if we think about changing our order of worship, or our ministries, well, just the thought of all of these things cause an immediate and almost visceral negative reaction.

Let me be clear: there has been no discussion about any of these things that I just said! I was being deliberately, provocatively hypothetical to make a point.

But I hope you see my point. These things, our traditions, our symbols, our order of worship, our programs, our ministries, these things are the stuff of the temple, they are made by human hands. They may be good things. In fact, they are good things. They may be valid things. In fact, they are valid. They may be faithful representations of what we believe. In fact, they are faithful representations of what we believe.

But in the end, they are only a copy of what is really happening when we worship God in Jesus Christ. 

And this is where the author of Hebrews wants to take us today: beyond tradition; beyond symbols; beyond worship styles; beyond doctrine; beyond articles of faith; beyond books of confession, beyond arguments about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, or who gets married to who, or who gets to serve communion on Sunday morning. 

Our relationship with God is based on one thing, and one thing only -- a fact so stubborn and dependable that the author says it five different times in his letter to the Hebrews -- that Jesus Christ, once and for all, has done everything, and by that he means literally everything that could possibly need to be done, in order for us to be welcomed into the presence of God. 

There is nothing more that we need do. Nothing more that we can do. Nothing more that we have to do. And nothing more that can be done about it, for better, or for worse. 

In Jesus Christ, we are, completely, endlessly, joyfully, welcomed into the family of God. And there’s nothing that can be done by us, or for us, that can change that. 

The world is changing around us. The church is changing around us. Articles of faith we once held so dear are no longer as binding. Ways of thinking about God have shifted. 

But one thing has not changed, and never will. Once, and for all, Jesus has signaled God’s willingness to do whatever it takes to bring all of us into his eternal temple, a sanctuary that can never be torn down, a feast that will never end, a love that will never die.

This is the one aspect of our faith that we can depend when everything else falls away -- our everlasting hope, our eternal promise, the foundation of everything we believe -- Jesus Christ had done it all, for everyone.

Now to the Holy One
who is at work within us,
accomplishing far more than we could ever ask or imagine,
now and forever. Amen.