24 Pentecost (B), 19 November 2006
Hebrews 10:11-25 [ESV text from biblegateway.com]
11And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. 15And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16"This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds," 17then he adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." 18Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. 19Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let 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. 23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
A TIME FOR SACRIFICE: THE SACRIFICE OF SELF
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The preacher of that extended sermon we know as the book of Hebrews was deeply concerned about the loss of passion for God among his readers and hearers. Reminding them that they were every bit as much a pilgrim people as their Israelite ancestors, the preacher both warns and encourages his flock with Law and Gospel that they might yet reach the heavenly Promised Land and not suffer the fate of the first generation of those that the LORD led out of bondage in Egypt.
Today’s pericope continues the theme that the Lord Jesus is both priest and victim, a once and for all sacrifice for the sins of the world. As priest and forever sacrifice, Christ Jesus Himself fulfills the promise of a new covenant proclaimed long before by the prophet Jeremiah in the power of the Holy Spirit. In Christ, God the Father has opened the door to the heavenly Promised Land for all those that have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. To those that trustingly call upon Christ Jesus as Savior and are baptized into His death and resurrection, there is forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
But, of course, the preacher of Hebrews knows that, like the Israelites of old in the wilderness, those whom the Holy Spirit has claimed in the washing of Holy Baptism, yes, those in whom the Holy Spirit has created saving faith, can lose heart and hope and transfer their affections to false gods – the worst being the false god in the mirror.
NEGLECTING TO MEET TOGETHER AS HABIT
Lutheran Christians know that the commandment against taking God’s name in vain can be flipped over, as Martin Luther did in his Small Catechism, to be read as God’s friendly command to call upon Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. The how to of that friendly command follows in the next commandment to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy by gladly hearing and learning the Word of God.
Those that neglect the Word of God and the preaching of it become sitting ducks for every other word that comes down the pike. What follows is the kind of playing fast and loose with God’s Word that echoes the old tempter’s ploy in the Garden of Eden. Pretty soon people are speaking a script written by the old evil one himself with sentiments such as: “I really don’t think God would mind if I did thus and so, because, after all, God knows that I have the best intentions at heart.”
Specifically, I think of the person that says: “Well, I hope you don’t think bad of us that we took off the past couple of weeks, but we just wanted to spend a little time together as a family. And then, the next week, we were so tired that we just all needed to sleep in. After all, isn’t the Sabbath supposed to be a day of rest?”
A recent conversation at the church door after a Saturday evening service went like this. Pastor: “I’m so glad to see you today. I’ve missed you recently.” Parishioner: “Oh, well, I finally had a day off.” Pastor: “So you’re working both Saturdays and Sundays now?” Parishioner with uncomfortable expression: “Well, uh, yes.” Pastor doing math in head about shifts that preclude both an early Sunday service and a late Saturday service: “Well, you must be excited about Advent services. We’ll be having midweek services at noon and 7 p.m. on Wednesdays.” Parishioner with anxious glances towards the parking lot: “Yes…I hope I can attend one.”
Luther’s description of keeping the Sabbath was not specific to Sunday with its emphasis on gladly hearing and learning the Word of God. In a former parish, the weekly noon Wednesday Eucharist became the Sabbath day for a couple of parishioners with weekend responsibilities to elderly parents out-of-town. In many parishes, Saturday evening Eucharists have been a godsend to pious medical personnel and shopkeepers alike. Certainly the more fragile among the elderly have found Saturday evening to be safe from children dashing down the hallways at breakneck speed. Some parishes have even instituted a Thursday evening Eucharist for parishioners that must work every weekend.
Despite the efforts of congregations to adapt to a culture now devoid of blue laws and other such once available church-friendly supports, the parishioner that neglects to meet together regularly can always find a good excuse hatched from a heart curved in upon itself!
One younger parishioner new to a former parish exclaimed one Easter Sunday: “Pastor, where did all these people come from?” I said: “Oh, most of them you will see again on Christmas Eve. They always turn out for the musical show.” A local alternative weekly once named that parish the best place in town to go for Christmas Eve. But it’s hard for music to be a handmaiden for the Word of God if the people neglect to gather together to hear and gladly learn the Word of God.
THE APPROACHING DAY
Most of us prefer encouragement to scolding. Taking that sentiment to its absurd conclusion, the sequel to the movie Meet the Parents has the father of a grown son showing off his son’s last place trophies and participant ribbons – a household shrine to a childhood filled with parental fawning. The son, who not surprisingly lives a continent away from such parents, is aghast that the shrine is still there for fiancé and her parents to see. Reinventing oneself is only as successful as keeping one’s family of origin away from one’s future in-laws. This scene is, of course, a cartoon of what the heart curved in upon itself looks like when disguised as encouragement.
False encouragement is epidemic in the wider culture. Rather than listening to God’s external Word that afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, a culture built upon neglecting the Word of God rather facilely calls the Word of God ignorance. Any attack on the wider culture’s celebration of what-I-think-is-best-for-me cannot be tolerated. Which is what leads to congregations playing the whore in order to become culturally relevant…of course, all in the name of encouragement.
Contra this type of encouragement which is so ungodly, the Hebrews preacher urges his readers and hearers not to neglect the Sabbath meeting, as is the habit of some, and to encourage one another to hold fast to the confession of “our” (commonly held) hope in God’s Son Jesus without wavering. And, all of this is because we can see the approaching Day of the Lord’s appearing.
The Day is coming when each of us will see God face to face to give an account of our lives. As always, it may be our personal dying day or, finally, that of the old creation in its entirety.
The Lord Jesus has warned that not everyone that says “Lord, Lord” will enter into the heavenly Promised Land. Having neglected to meet together to gladly hear and learn the Word of God, what-I-think-is-best-for-me may well turn out to be eternal death for me. “MY” Jesus may turn out to be nothing more than the old tempter wearing a pious mask of the kind of encourager who taught me to celebrate “MY” will. If I have remained ignorant of God’s Word, I may well have built my life on the proverbial sinking sand – a fool to the end!
THE ONCE AND FOR ALL SACRIFICE
The Hebrews preacher has already offered the way out to those that are wandering in the wilderness of this world. We have a great sinless high priest who knows our weaknesses and is sympathetic to us. God’s Son Jesus, truly human and truly God, gives Himself as a once and for all sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. By the sacrifice of His own body and blood, the Lord Jesus offers forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to sinners like us – to people with hearts curved in upon ourselves.
By His holy death and resurrection, He has opened the way to the heavenly Promised Land – a new way made possible by the grace and mercy of God in Christ. When we are baptized into His death and resurrection, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever. We are given the confidence to approach our heavenly Father knowing that He has promised, for Christ’s sake, to remember our sins and our lawless deeds no more.
Day after day, the Holy Spirit calls the children of God out of the old life with its sin-curved heart and into a new life and a new hope made possible by God’s new covenant in Christ Jesus.
THE FAITHFUL PROMISSOR
When we do not neglect to meet together to gladly hear and learn the Word of God, we are promised in Word and Sacrament the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. When we do not neglect to meet together to gladly hear and learn the Word of God, we are able to confess the truth about ourselves that we are yet sinners in need of that Faithful Promissor who alone can deliver us from all the twisted logic of a heart twisted by the empty promises of that wily old tempter.
God is not a Burger King God that lets us have it our way. God is not a Nike God that tells us to just do it. Our God is an unparalleled God, the only true God, who kills and yet makes graciously alive those whose hearts have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and whose bodies have been washed with the pure water of Holy Baptism!
Not neglecting to meet together to gladly hear and learn the Word of God, we hold fast to our confession of hope without wavering, for the Faithful Promissor has acted unilaterally on the cross of Calvary in order that we might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
PROVOKING ONE ANOTHER TO LOVE AND GOOD DEEDS
When with empty hands we grasp the body and blood of Christ given for us in bread and wine, we receive the Living God, the once and for all sacrifice for our sins. Luther’s young associate Philip Melancthon said to know Christ is to know His benefits. But what we receive in the Sacrament of the Altar is not some kind of disembodied spiritual benefits! We receive the One who is both priest and victim. We receive the One who shares with us the eternal life and love of the Triune God.
When by faith we grasp hold, with trembling hands, the very body and blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, how can that not provoke us to share what we have received – the Author of Love and the Doer of Good Deeds? He becomes embodied, however frailly, in our own flesh and blood. He goes with us into our everyday lives to employ our hands and feet and hearts and voices in the work of God’s Kingdom.
When we do not neglect to meet together gladly to hear and learn the Word of God, and, like the Virgin Mary, to become bearers of God’s Word, then it is not too great a thing nor too small for the Holy Spirit to sanctify and preserve us in the one true faith unto life everlasting.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
© Samuel D. Zumwalt