October 25, 2015 The Answer is Yes

posted Jul 5, 2016, 3:42 PM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: Hebrews 7:23-28

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

Sermon: The Answer is Yes

For the last few weeks, we’ve been preaching our way through the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. The Book of Hebrews is, in many ways, an extended sermon, a long discussion of the who, how, and why of Jesus, and what that all means for those of us who call ourselves Christians.
The book of Hebrews was written to a different audience than us, a long time ago, and let’s face it, some of the context of the author doesn't really resonate as well with us modern day folks so much.


I mean, really, we don’t talk like this anymore, do we, about high priests, about sacrifice. These are outdated concepts, relics of an ancient religious system that has no bearing on our lives. In fact, I’m not so sure we really even like to talk about sin, unless maybe it’s the sin of other people, the sorts of sin we would never commit. Otherwise, it’s best not to bring up the subject of sin; we might get a little bit uncomfortable.


And so, what do we do with this scripture? How do we fit these words into our context? What meanings might these ancient concepts be able to share with our world, with our problems?


In other words, how is the Preacher of Hebrews preaching to us, in our time and place?


I think in order to get there, we might have to first figure out why the author is using the imagery of a high priest and sacrifice in the first place.


Let’s remember, that for many folks in his time, their faith had become transactional, that is, if they committed a sin, they paid a price, in the form of a sacrifice, and their sin was forgiven. The problem was, they would sin again. And again.


The priests were sort of the brokers for making sure the transactions took place. They were the Edward Jones’ of the religious world, working with the people to make sure their sacrifices were timely and taken care of. It was a daily thing, this sacrifice business, because sin is a daily thing. The priests knew it, the people knew it.


And so the ritual goes on. Day after day. Sin after sin. Sacrifice after sacrifice. Payment after payment. A transactional faith. I do this, I pay this, God does this. It all works out.


Now, the good part about a transactional faith is that you know where you stand, as long as you can pay up. As long as you keep the goods flowing, you’re in good shape. As long as you’ve got something to sacrifice, you know that you’re forgiven. You have a certain amount of power over your forgiveness.


Hate your neighbor? Throw in a couple of chickens. Lust after his wife? Chuck in a goat, or a heifer. Steal his Xbox? I’m not sure what the sacrifice for that is, it’s not listed in Leviticus. My point is, a transactional faith reduces the relationship between God and humanity to payments and rewards, rather than hope and trust. Righteousness becomes something you have power over, as long as you played by the rules. Sacrifice might hurt, it might cost, but it was under your control.


But now, Jesus had thrown all those rules out the window. There was no more sacrifice for sin. No more quid pro quo. No more transactional faith.


And I think that this was hard for people to accept. It’s obviously hard for them to accept, because the author of Hebrews spends a couple of chapters trying to get them to accept it. And, we didn’t read this part, but before he even starts this whole section on priests and sacrifice, he says that this is going to be a hard teaching to understand.


And he’s not kidding.


You mean, we sin, and we don’t have to pay for it anymore? You mean, that we just do what we want, and we are forgiven? It’s that easy? There’s nothing we have to do? Nothing we have to say? Nothing we have to affirm, nothing we have to pray, nothing we have to burn, sell, or give away?


Jesus has paid it all?


Really?


All of it? For everyone?


Even for me?


And when we break it down like that, when we look at what the author of Hebrews is trying to convince his congregation to let go of, well, you can see why this is a difficult thing for them to wrap their minds around.


Because before, they knew the terms. But now, not so much. Before, it was a contract. Now, it’s a covenant. Before, it was a deal. Now, it’s a relationship. Before there was a judge. Now there is a savior.


And everything changes when Jesus pays it all. When Jesus takes our sin, he takes our shame, and our guilt with it. We can no longer be beaten over the head with our failings, we can no longer be judged for our weaknesses. And what a freedom this really is, if we but choose to accept it.


But when Jesus takes our sin from us, he also takes our hiding places, our excuses, and our justifications. No longer are we bound to our past, to our mistakes, to our private imperfections. They too, are lifted from us. And what a responsibility this also is, if we but choose to accept it.


When Jesus becomes our high priest, he interrupts the endless cycle of sin and sacrifice, debt and payment. He interrupts the cycle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. His endless intercession on our behalf gives us room to forgive ourselves, but it also gives us room to forgive others. No longer do we have to pay God for our sin. And no longer do we need to require those who have trespassed against us to pay us.


And so, maybe this language of priests and sacrifice is not so archaic. Because, regardless of the words we use, we still have a hard time accepting this kind of love. We still have a hard time hearing this, as the author of Hebrews calls it, this “hard to explain teaching”. We still want to have a hand in it, we still want to be in charge of it. We still want to name the time and the place of our salvation.


Is there something I can give up that can make me more worthy, Lord? Is there something I can say or do that can guarantee your love for me? Is there some sort of method or one weird trick that will ensure your blessings on my life?


But these questions completely miss the point. There is nothing to give, nothing to sacrifice, there is in fact, no need to give, no need to sacrifice. There is no secret life hack, no killer prayer app that will invoke God’s mercy. Jesus has, in fact, given everything that could possibly need to be given.


Now of course, this begs the question, “Then what is required of me for salvation?” The answer: nothing. Our salvation depends not upon human will or exertion, but upon the mercy of God.


Which begs another question: “If my salvation is not dependent on the way I live, why should I live it in any particularly moral or ethical way?”


I think that for many of us, this is a crucial point. Without the fear of hell, what else will arrest the bad behavior of society? If we are not able to point with certainty to the actions of others and shout, “damned for all eternity,” then what is there to prevent people from acting out?


And maybe this is the hard teaching that Hebrews is talking about. Maybe it’s not about that. Maybe it’s not about terrorizing people into heaven. Maybe it’s not about judgement, guilt, shame, accusations, and the fear of hell.


Because, when Jesus took condemnation upon himself, he changed the whole equation. When he took the price of sin itself on his shoulders, the reasons for doing things shifted, there was no longer a price to paid, death was defeated, hell itself was broken open and plundered.


Now, are there expectations of the Christian life? You bet. We just spent six weeks in the book of James examining in minute detail the expectations of a Christian life. Faith and practice are inextricably bound up together, you can’t separate them. But, in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the connection between salvation and human works has been broken, forever. There’s no need for us to try to bind it up together again, no matter how much we might think we need to.


And so the only question left to ask ourselves then is this: Jesus did thing, this amazing thing, took the sin of humanity, broke the chains of punishment, not just for sinners, not just for the world, but also for me? Jesus died on the cross, beaten, pure, sinless, alone, not just for the sake of all people, but also for my sake?


This meal before us is the answer to that question. The table reminds us that that when we wonder if God knows us, Jesus is here with an introduction. When we wonder if God loves us, Jesus is here with a glowing letter of recommendation. When we wonder of God can ever forgive us, Jesus is here, interceding on our behalf, on my behalf, on your behalf, on their behalf, on behalf of all people, forever. In this ordinary bread and cup is the extraordinary promise that Jesus has done all that will ever be needed for us to take our place at the banquet feast in heaven forever.


Come to the table, taste and see that the answer to our deepest, most secret question is always yes.


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.
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