October 29, 2018
The Proper 26B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 12:28-34 from the Lectionary Gospel; Ruth 1:1-18 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 146 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Hebrews 9:11-14 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 94 (Lord’s Day 34)
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
The first thing I noticed about this text is that this is that while all the other encounters Jesus has with the Scribes and Pharisees, the Jewish leaders, are adversarial, this one is positive. This particular Scribe had been listening to Jesus discuss theology with the Jewish leaders, and he was really impressed with Jesus’s answers.
So, he asked Jesus the most basic and important question of all, and it doesn’t appear that he was trying to trip Jesus up but was genuinely interested in the answer. “Which commandment is the first of all?”
The Old Testament gives 613 commands in all, the Rabbis counted them. That’s a lot. So, one of the questions that occupied the teachers of the law was how to rank them. The purpose was not to rank them in importance so that some could be obeyed and others ignored. The idea was that isolating the first, the most important commandment would help them interpret all the others.
Jesus replies by reciting the Schema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6, right after the Ten Commandments are given in chapter 5. In a sense it is a commentary, or elucidation of the first commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me,” but instead of being stated negatively, it’s stated positively, and not only positively, but as an act of love and devotion rather than sheer obedience.
Many scholars assert that by Jesus’s time, the Schema was recited each morning by every observant Jew. It was and still is today the central statement of Jewish faith.
One interesting aspect of Jesus’s statement is that he adds something to the Shema as it’s recorded in Deuteronomy– “and with all your mind.” We love God with our minds. This might be an important point to make in congregations today. In some strains of Christianity today there is a kind of anti-intellectualism, a sense that thinking too much about the faith is dangerous. It was enough to motivate Christian historian Mark Noll to write a book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” in which he decried this anti-intellectual tendency.
Thinking about God, seriously studying God’s Word, speaking for the truths of the Christian faith in confronting the great issues of life in the world today, is an important and necessary way of loving God. What greater activity is there to occupy the mind than to think God’s thoughts after him, to seek to understand the ways of God, to go as far as we can into the beauty of God’s being.
The basic, the most important, the fundamental commandment of all is to love God. It is not to obey God, though that is certainly included in love, nor is it to worship God, though love leads inevitably to worship. God desires our love because God is love. We were made for love. The whole universe is made from love and for love. And the greatest love of all, from which all other loves flow, is to love God. In these words Jesus opens our hearts like sunflowers to the sun. We are made for love.
The Scribe had asked for the first, the key commandment, but Jesus adds a second. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19: 18) This was not an entirely new coupling, but was already known in Jesus’s day. It combines the two “tables” of the Ten Commandments, 1-4 having to do with God, and 5-10 having to do with the neighbor.
When Jesus calls it the second, he does not mean that it is secondary to the first. He closes by saying, “There is no greater commandment than these.” Notice the singular word “commandment,” and the plural, “than these.” In other words, we should think of these two commandments as one; you can’t have one without the other.
The first is first because it’s the necessary foundation of the second, but the second is just as important as the first. It’s found in every book of the New Testament, but nowhere more powerfully than in I John, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars… The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (I John 4:20,21) It’s like breathing in and breathing out. Love God; love your neighbor. You can’t have one without the other.
The scribe’s response to Jesus is surprising because we don’t expect it. This is the only time in the gospels in which the interaction between Jesus and one of the Jewish leaders is wholly positive. Most of the time they are trying to trap him in a mistake or reject what he says. But here the scribe says, “Wow, that was good! That’s exactly right.”
The scribe’s positive response to Jesus is also important precisely because it demonstrates that Jesus is not proclaiming something new. Jesus may be radical in his application of the law, but he understands it deeply and affirms it wholeheartedly. Jesus is also a good Jew. He affirms the Old Covenant even as he inaugurates the new covenant.
To show that they are having a real conversation, and not a “gottcha” session, the scribe wants to continue the conversation. “O yes, that’s so true, and love is so important that the prophets say it is more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Jesus’ response to the scribe is interesting and even somewhat hard to pin down. “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” It could be heard in several ways. Is Jesus saying something like, “Hey, not bad. You know a thing or two yourself.” Perhaps. It certainly is a positive and encouraging response.
But the scribe is “not far from the Kingdom.” What does that mean, what further steps must he take to be in the Kingdom? It’s important to know and think deeply about God’s commandments. It’s certainly important to know the centrality of love in keeping God’s commandments. But it’s “not far” from the Kingdom.
You’re not there yet until you follow Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. He is the love of God and neighbor personified because in his love for the Father he gives up his life for the world.
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.
Preaching the Text:
By combining the Schema with the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus offers a truth worthy of some deep consideration. When we hear that loving our neighbor is the necessary corollary of loving God, it doesn’t just mean that loving my neighbor follows after our love for God. It’s the other way around too. I can’t properly love others, even those closest to me, apart from loving God first and most.
What is deeper, more fierce, than the love of a mother for her child. Yet, in the light of Jesus’ words, the mother’s love can only come to its truest, purest expression, when it is firmly based in our primary love for God. When we love our children within the context of our primary love for God, then it banishes all the idolatrous, clinging, self-serving loves that can mar even this close relationship. In the same way, Paul calls husbands and wives love each other “in the Lord.” He meant the love of a man and woman must be lived out in the atmosphere of a primary love for God. Such love preserves the beloved’s dignity, and provides the ongoing basis for fidelity, mutual forgiveness, and freedom.
The commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is especially challenging in this time of deep social division and tribalism. As soon as we hear the words, “and your neighbor as yourself” we are likely to think of the neighbor as other people, plural, the masses, humanity in general. In fact, the word is pointedly singular. The love command does not call us to a sentimental humanitarianism. It calls us to a concrete love of the particular neighbor who happens to wander through our life that very moment.
That may be wife or husband, children, friends, colleagues. It may also be the person who personifies everything that I despise, the very opposite of what my tribe believes and stands for. If I love God, I must also love the ones he loves, and that’s pretty much everyone. It’s crucial to keep this commandment in the forefront to prevent us from sliding into cynicism or anger, and to refuse the tit for tat of mocking epithets and that are so easy as we bang out our Tweets and Facebook posts.
Author: Stan Mast
As we near the end of Ordinary Time the lectionary lessons begin to lean into Advent with a focus on three faithful people, two of them in the genealogy of the Christ. The end of the book of Ruth reminds us that Ruth, against all odds, was part of the family tree of David and, thus, of David’s Greater Son. That is a key to interpreting and applying the book of Ruth; it is part of a much larger story.
That simple fact will keep us from getting lost in the beauty of the story and focusing on its narrative and aesthetic details to the detriment of the larger message. Ruth is a literary masterpiece, the quintessential short story. Literary scholars note its nearly perfect form. For example, its introduction and conclusion consist of precisely 71 words. It is set in 4 distinct geographical locations. Each scene ends with a perfect transition to the next scene. And so forth.
Thus, over the years, folks have gotten lost in the loveliness of Ruth. The beauty of Ruth’s pledge of allegiance to her mother in law Naomi in verses 16-17 have been used at countless weddings. Connect those words to the relationship between Ruth and Boaz and you have a classic romance tale. The fact that the story is driven by strong women tempts some to see in this book a feminist tract. Elimelech’s journey to Moab, a foreign land, indeed, a country historically hostile to the Jews, makes this a story about refugees, famine refugees. And this leads some preachers to focus on issues of immigration.
While all of those features are in this powerful story, it is not first of all about any of them. It is primarily a story of redemption. That word and its variants occur 23 times in the story. The narrative arc of the story moves from emptiness to fullness through the loyal love (hesed, verse 8) of Ruth and Boaz. It is the story of Naomi’s transformation from despair to happiness through the selfless, God-blessed acts of Ruth and Boaz. That transformation parallels what happens in Israel on a larger scale (hinted at in the movement from famine to plenty right in today’s reading). And it is an historical precursor to the redemption of humanity from destitution to security through the hesed of God expressed in the selfless, God-blessed acts of Jesus Christ. Ruth is part of the redemptive history that centered on Israel and came to fulfillment in Jesus.
Ruth’s place in the larger story is made unmistakable by its opening and closing words (which I will deal with next week). Verse 1 locates the story in the time of the Judges, that dark period in Israel’s history when there was no one charge. As a result, people did what was right in their own eyes, which led to a moral perversity that violated all the covenantal obligations God had laid on his chosen people. Indeed, Judges ends with a gruesome gang rape and the kidnapping of multiple women to become forced brides. Women were brutalized in those times. So, the book of Ruth functions as a tiny point of light and hope in that dark and depraved time.
But the book wasn’t written in those times, as the concluding genealogy of David shows. It was written after David’s reign, sometime in the monarchy, perhaps in the time of the divided kingdom, and maybe even in the post-Exilic era. The themes of emptiness and fullness, of loss and dislocation, of loyal love that results in redemption could fit many moments in Israel’s history and in our lives.
The dislocation is the first of many losses for Naomi. Motivated by starvation, Naomi’s husband leads his wife and two sons around the Dead Sea, over the Jordan, and down the King’s Highway to the fertile grain fields of Moab. That was enemy territory. For centuries Israel and Moab had battled each other, and now this little Jewish band settles in hostile territory. Then Naomi’s husband dies. Her only support in that sternly patriarchal time was now gone.
Oh, yes, she still had her two sons, who promptly married two Moabite women. Such unions weren’t strictly forbidden by Yahweh, but they weren’t blessed either. No Moabite could enter the sanctuary, even if they had been in Israel for 10 generations. But at least her two sons were still there to take care of mom. Then they also died.
Now Naomi is truly destitute—away from her home land, a widow with no children, saddled with two foreign daughters in law, both of whom have proven to be infertile after 10 years of marriage. Naomi is a female Job. Loss after loss led to bitterness and hopelessness. God has blasted her life; “Yahweh’s hand has gone out against me (verse 13).”
But then she hears a good word. There is food back in Judah again. So, she will drag herself back home, even though she will have no standing there, given that her male protectors are all gone. She resolves to travel to Bethlehem with daughters in law in tow. But a short way down the King’s Highway, she changes her mind (or reveals what she had planned all along). She sends her barren foreign daughters in law back to their homes to find new husbands among their own people and start life over again. She sends them off with a covenantal blessing that sets the tone for everything that follows. “May Yahweh show hesed to you as you have shown to me….”
But the women won’t go. In a shocking reversal of the stereotypical mother in law/daughter in law conflict, Ruth and Orpah refuse to leave. That leads Naomi to redouble her plea, endeavoring to prove to them that there is no hope for them if they stay with her. Referring to the Levirate law of marriage, Naomi points out that even if she could get another husband on the spot and she could have two babies nine months later, those girls wouldn’t/shouldn’t wait around another 20 years before they could marry those boys. “There is no hope, my daughters, none at all. So, go home, go home.”
At that Orpah leaves. But Ruth won’t. Naomi lays on the peer pressure. Look, your sister in law is going back to her people and her gods. Ruth replies with that famous avowal of loyalty that has graced many a wedding, in verses 16-18. But these are no wedding vows; they are a confession of faith, a testimony of conversion. At the heart of her loyalty to Naomi is Ruth’s pledge of allegiance to Yahweh. “Your God shall be my God.” And she calls on Yahweh to deal harshly with her if she ever breaks her promise to stay with Naomi “till death do them part.” With that, Naomi gives up, goes silent, and trudges home with her miraculously converted daughter in law. With that, a foreigner, an enemy, enters the covenant and the rest will be history.
Why would Ruth make such a decision to forsake her land, her people, her gods? Maybe because she has witnessed the faith of Naomi’s family over the last decade. But, then, wouldn’t Naomi’s bitter complaint against Yahweh in verse 13 give her pause. Or maybe Ruth’s experience of hesed from Naomi’s family had convinced her that the God whose hesed was at their heart of their hesed was worth following. Or maybe, like Abraham whom she resembles in many ways or like the Apostle Paul, she had simply been changed by the sovereign grace of God. God needed her to be in the family tree of the Messiah, so God grafted her in by mysterious grace.
Why would God go to the trouble of getting a Moabite into the genealogy of the Messiah? Here’s how the NIV Study Bible answers that question. “Ruth exemplifies the truth that participation in the coming Kingdom of God is decided not by blood and birth, but by the conformity of one’s life to the will of God through ‘the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5).’ Ruth’s place in the ancestry of David signifies that all nations will be represented in the kingdom of David’s greater Son.”
But that major theological point takes us ahead to next week’s reading. What can you say to your congregation today based on these opening words of Ruth? You can focus on that theme of loss, emptiness, hopelessness. When we are feeling those things and we think it is God’s fault, the story of Ruth and Naomi portrayed in these opening words point us to God’s mysterious, often incomprehensible ways of redeeming us in those times. When we think God has forsaken us, his loyal love will not let us go. In unpredictable ways, God can restore you, fill you, and give you hope. He did it in Naomi’s life, in Israel’s history, and in Jesus Christ. Ruth’s profession of faithful love to Naomi is a revelation of God’s faithful love to us. At this point in the story, we don’t know how this sad adventure will turn out, any more than we know how our story will conclude. But the inclusion of this story in the history of redemption assures us that God’s hesed will redeem us in ways we can’t imagine.
Although I don’t think it is legitimate to preach a whole sermon on the refugee crisis using this text, it would be very helpful to use that crisis to lead people into the situation in which Naomi found herself. The same would be true of the kind of oppression women face in some (all?) cultures today.
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging Into the Text:
Psalm 146 marks the beginning of the last “Book” in the Psalms, four psalms that close the Psalter with a rising chorus of praise. Each one begins and ends with the word Hallellu Jah, “Praise the Lord [Jahweh].”
Since the Psalms constantly admonish us to praise the Lord, it may seem as though God covets our praise like some needy entertainer. Actually, praise is a common and wonderful human attitude and activity. We love to be in the middle of a cheering throng when the hometown basketball wins the game, or when a rock band stirs an overflowing stadium.
The call to praise the Lord focuses that thrilling activity on the one being who truly deserves it. Philosopher James K. A. Smith reminds us how the church’s liturgy functions in relation to what he calls the secular liturgies of our world– the liturgies of the world of sports, entertainment, shopping, and politics. Praising the Lord with all our might, we remind ourselves and the world of the incomparable greatness of God, and we guard ourselves against the idolatries always ready to claim our allegiance.
It is striking that the three Hallelujah psalms that follow are pure songs of praise from beginning to end. In comparison Psalm 146 begins with an initial call to praise but is followed by some instruction about the focus of our praise.
First, it singles out one unworthy object of our praise,
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
In the ancient world, it was commonplace for monarchs to build their power by soliciting the praise of the people over which they ruled. They were often regarded as demi-gods or as human representatives of the gods themselves. Recall that at a later time Roman emperors would engrave “son of God” under the image on a coin.
While no ruler today would likely get away with such a divine designation, they do not hesitate to gain trust, or votes, by stoking the fear in their followers and then asserting that only they can deliver their people from danger or guarantee their prosperity. In recent days the American president has traveled the country with rallies packed with “huge” cheering crowds, claiming to be the only one who can save the country from the disasters he predicts.
The Psalmist specifically warns against such adulation because “There is no help” in them. Earthly rulers cannot provide the help we all need most. They are only human, subject to the same weaknesses, temptations, and self-centeredness as the rest of us. Moreover, they are mortal. They die like we all will, and in the vacuum of their absence, all their plans perish with them.
It’s important to note that the Psalm is not claiming that rulers and governments have no role in human life and welfare. The Psalmist directs his warning against the false promises, overweening power grabs, and god-like claims that earthly rulers are tempted to make. Honor the rulers, but have no illusions about their power to save.
Only God is praiseworthy, and only God is worthy of our absolute confidence and trust.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever.
True happiness and wellbeing comes from the God of Jacob. He is the creator of all things, and therefore has the skill and insight to provide what is best for his creatures. But, even more than that, God is faithful. The foundation of the whole biblical story is God’s deep covenantal relationship with his creation. God will not forsake, God will not let go of the world he made.
Earthly rulers cannot and do not have the same commitment. Their aims are at least tainted, if not motivated by, self-interest. God is all in for the world. Despite its sin and rebellion, God is wholly committed to the welfare and salvation of his creation.
Psalm 146 follows up on this thought with a list of commitments God has made to the world. Only God is totally committed to justice. Only God is truly righteous, Only God is fully on the side of the oppressed, the vulnerable, the defenseless. Only God can be counted on to deliver us from the clutches of evil in this world.
This impressive list of God’s commitments is particularly ironic because it points toward commitments that are typically missing from the world’s potentates. While they tend to lavish concern on and advocate for the rich, the powerful, and those on the top rungs of society, God looks out for those on the bottom.
It also informs us of what we should look for in genuinely godly earthly rulers. The task of government according to God’s standards will echo the kind of concerns of the world’s true King.
Psalm 82 expresses this even more direct by depicting an assembly of the “gods” (typically understood as earthly rulers) before the throne of the God in which he takes them to task for their failure to act as they should.
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
And then the Lord pronounced judgement on them for the very reason Psalm 146 gives not to trust in them.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”
The Psalm closes with another call to praise the eternal God, the only one who can save.
Preaching the Text:
1). In his delightful and helpful book, “Reflections on the Psalms,” C. S. Lewis writes about how he long struggled to understand why the Psalms constantly called us to praise God as though God somehow depended on our approval until he noticed how much we delight to offer praise.
The Psalmists, in telling everyone to praise God, are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what we indeed can’t help doing, about everything else we value….
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . . The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
At its best, Christian worship offers us this delight in the praise of God. Singing our Hallelujahs together, we can experience a joy and ecstasy that is a harbinger of heaven’s raucous cheers.
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon
thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the
living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
2). When Psalm 146 invites us to offer out praise to God and, by implication, not to earthly rulers, it is helpful to remember how various despots throughout history have used mass adulation to strengthen their hold on power. One only need watch Leni Riefenstahl’s chilling classic film, “The Triumph of the Will” depicting the Reich Party Congress of 1935 in Germany. The power of praise can be harnessed for evil as well as for good.
3). We tend to restrict our praise of God to the worship of the church. Indeed, many of us have discovered how it’s much easier to intercede than to offer our Hallelujahs in our daily prayers. One reason, I think, is because praise is best experienced in a crowd. It seems to demand a chorus, the delight increases with the participation.
But there’s another reason for the paucity of our personal praise of God–it’s hard to find the words. “I just want to praise you, O God” doesn’t have the same kick as “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” That’s a good reason to take the Bible or a Prayer book into our personal prayers. Praying the Psalms of praise, or lifting up the words of a prayer book that has given breathtakingly beautiful words to express our adoration for generations, joins us to a praising community that stretches through the centuries.
4). Psalm 46, one of the greatest Psalms of praise was fashioned into a hymn by Martin Luther, and became one of the standards of the Reformation: A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
Author: Doug Bratt
This week’s Epistolary Lesson is a bloody one. In fact, it’s so bloody that citizens of the already figuratively blood-soaked 21st century may be uncomfortable with it. Even its preachers and teachers may wonder how to apply Hebrews 9’s truths to a world that’s already in some ways soaked in the blood of war, ethnic conflict and violence.
This week’s “bloody” Lectionary Epistle points back to what Christians generally call the Day of Atonement that Leviticus 16 describes. That Day of Atonement was also a bloody business. On it, after all, the priest would slaughter both a goat that had been chosen by lots and a bull.
He would then sprinkle some blood from both animals in front of and on the cover of the ark, as well as in front of and on the atonement cover. The priest would also sprinkle blood in the Tent of Meeting as well as on the altar of burnt offering.
The term “scapegoat” originates with the Day of Atonement. After all, on that day Israel’s priest would lay his hands on a goat, symbolizing the transfer of Israel’s sin onto that animal. The priest then chased the goat to die out into the desert.
The Day of Atonement, however, was very smoky as well as bloody. After all, the priest sprinkled incense on burning coals to obscure the ark from the peoples’ sight. At the end of the Day, someone also brought all of the sacrifices to a place outside the camp where he burned them.
Yet in the midst of all this bloodiness and smokiness there was, what’s more, quite understandably, much washing. After all, in preparation for the Day of Atonement’s ceremony, the priest would wash himself. After someone took the scapegoat out into the desert, he also washed himself.
After the priest had performed the Atonement’s ceremonies, he again washed himself. On top of all that, outside the camp, the man who burned all of the sacrifices also washed both his clothes and himself before rejoining the people.
We can imagine, however, that the Day of Atonement was also a noisy business. Think, after all, of what all the bleating of the goats and the bellowing of the bulls being slaughtered sounded like.
The priest did much of that smelly and smoky, bloody and noisy work on the Day of Atonement. In fact, Hebrews 9:7 says, “only the high priest” walked on the extremely sacred ground that was the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle.
That was, however, dangerous work. After all, Old Testament priests stood in the gap between our most holy God and a sinful people. In fact, when priests entered the Most Holy Place, they did so with ropes tied around their ankles. That way someone could safely pull them back out in case God angrily struck them down.
All of the Day of Atonement’s drama and seriousness pointed to the desperate seriousness of peoples’ sins. God commanded the Israelites to offer these sacrifices in order to help them understand how much it would cost to deliver them from their sins.
Yet as Reformed Christians confess in the Heidelberg Catechism, no creature could actually pay for our sins. No goat or calf, after all, can bear the full weight of and release others from God’s wrath. No, to pay for our sins God’s adopted sons and daughters need someone who is “truly human and truly righteous, yet more powerful than all creatures, that is, one who is also true God.”
On top of that, as we read in Hebrews 9:9-10, “the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.”
Those are some of the reasons why Christians profess that all of the Day of Atonement’s blood, smoke and ritual finally point God’s people ahead to the Messiah. It points us to the way God graciously gave Jesus us to set us completely free and make us right with himself. Jesus Christ, however, entered God’s presence not on the basis of the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood.
Jesus was, then, in a real sense, both the High Priest and the sacrifice. He both offered the atoning sacrifice and was himself the atoning sacrifice. However, Christ was also the “scapegoat” on whom God laid our sins and then sent him out into the “desert” which was death on the cross.
So Christians no longer believe we must sacrifice animals to please God. For Jesus is the Lamb of God who people sacrificed instead of goats and calves. Through his blood, he truly and fully takes away the sins of the world.
The Jews for Jesus website reports that because Jewish people no longer have a temple, they’ve replaced the old sacrificial system. They now substitute a kind of atonement by repentance, prayers and good deeds for atonement by animal sacrifice. In other words, Jewish people hope that those religious acts will pay for their sins and appease God’s holiness.
Thankfully, Christians profess, God has graciously offered a way that produces more confidence that arises not from our superiority, but God’s kindness. Hebrews’ writer reminds us in chapter 10:19, “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus.” Believers no longer have to go through some religious professional, whether it’s a priest, rabbi or pastor, to have access to God. Christians no longer need people like pastors to serve as a kind of mediator, a go-between for Christians with God. For Jesus’ sake, God’s deeply beloved sons and daughters can all go directly to God, especially in prayer.
“Conscience” is one of the central themes this week’s Epistolary lesson. Hebrews 9:9 reminds God’s dearly beloved people that true Old Testament believers understood that the sacrificial system couldn’t clear their consciences. They offered the sacrifices, after all, only for sins they accidentally committed. The priests offered no atonement for deliberate sins.
Thankfully and graciously, then, Christ’s death also cleansed our consciences (14). Christians still sin, sometimes accidentally, but all too often quite deliberately. We grieve our sin and confess it to God. Even our conscience, as God’s children confess, accuses us of having grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments.
However, God’s people know that Christ has brought us peace with God. For Jesus’ sake, God won’t let Christians’ sin eternally separate us from the Lord. Jesus’ has paid for both our “accidental” and deliberate sins. He has appeased God’s wrath over Christians’ sins.
Of course, as we noted earlier, the 20th and 21st century’s violence has made some Christians reluctant to talk about what we sometimes call “atonement theory.” Their bloodshed makes it important for preachers and teachers to talk carefully about the need for Christ’s blood to be shed.
It’s hard to fully summarize all the ways that Christ’s death by God’s grace saves us. The Bible, in fact, uses other analogies to talk about its saving effects. But faithful biblical preachers and teachers look for ways to honestly admit and address the role of blood in our salvation that our text raises.
Through the gory death of Jesus Christ, after all, Christians no longer know tenuousness or uncertainty. We don’t have to just hope that God has written our names in God’s book of life. God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t have to tie ropes to our ankles, lest God angrily strike us down as we approach him.
No, because of what Christ has graciously done for God’s beloved children, God’s people have what Hebrews 10:19 calls “confidence” or boldness. As a result, you and I can “draw near to,” approach God in what verse 22 calls “full assurance of faith.”
Earlier God’s people’s approach to God was hesitant and fearful. Now can be humble and confident as well as joyous. Earlier God constantly warned people to keep their distance. God now invites us to draw near. In the Old Testament only the appointed high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and even then only once a year. Now Hebrews’ writer urges all Christians to come near God at any time.
Many commentators see this invitation as referring primarily to drawing near to God in prayer. Hebrews 9 means that we can pray to God boldly, in full confidence that he hears and answers our prayers for Jesus’ sake. God’s adopted sons and daughters can now humbly but also boldly approach God in prayer because God first humbly came to us in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Many Jewish people consider Yom Kippur to be the most sacred of all their holy days, their “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” Its tone and mood, writes John Schuurman, to whom I owe credit for many ideas in this Sermon Starter, is like Christians’ Good Friday, only more so.
While Jewish people eat well right up until Yom Kipper. they don’t eat or drink, as well as wear perfume or lotion on its holiest of all holy days. They also don’t have marital relations, wash or, at least in some cases, wear leather shoes. After all, Jewish people believe that on Yom Kippur, they emulate the angels in heaven, who don’t eat, drink or wash either.
Jewish people believe that on Rosh Hashanah, which they celebrate eight days ago before Yom Kippur, God judges most of the world and writes God’s judgments in God’s book of life. However, Jewish people also believe that God grants a ten-day reprieve between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur, then, our Jewish neighbors believe, is their last chance to show God that they’re repentant. So Jewish people rest and deny themselves just before its celebration because they believe that Yom Kippur is the last day on which they can convince God to change God’s judgment, if need be. For on that day, Jewish people believe, God seals the judgments in God’s book of life, at least for the next year.