November 02, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Preachers don’t always pay much attention to the acoustics of Bible stories but they should. How something sounded may be the key to getting a passage correctly. But as I say to my preaching students, this is where the Bible does not help us a lot. It is a rare Bible verse that says something like “Jesus replied cheerfully” or “Peter said angrily.” Just not a lot of adverbs in the Bible to suggest how something was said. The verbs, too, tend to be “answered” or “said” or “spoke” but rarely more colorful verbs like “barked” or “shouted” or “whispered.” Hence we tend to read all Bible passages the same way and when it comes to the words of Jesus, that “way” is often a semi-flat intonation or something flecked with a lot of confidence.
But what if not? Suggesting a new acoustic for a passage can make even familiar verses sound fresh and new. I often use John 14 as an example: we often read Jesus’ words “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me . . .” with a kind of spritely, bold confidence. But given what was going on at that precise moment, I prefer to read it in a quivering voice, tears forming at the corners of the eyes, chin quaking with emotion. Jesus’ world and circle of friends were crumbling fast just then. I can’t imagine he stood up, placed his hands on his hips, and spoke those words in a triumphant tone of voice with a face radiating confidence. It’s certainly not how he’ll look shortly thereafter in a place called Gethsemane.
When I have read John 14 that way, I have seen people all over a sanctuary snap to attention. Turns out, a gentle, compassionate, emotional Jesus is just who people sometimes need to meet in worship on a given Sunday morning.
So what about Mark 12 and Jesus’ words about this widow and what she had put into the offering box? All my life I have heard this incident touted as being a singular example of generous giving to God and to the church. This widow has become a role model, someone whose attitude the rest of us need to emulate and imitate. Hence, we imagine that when Jesus spoke what he did in verses 43-44, the tone of his voice was appreciative, maybe wondrous. Perhaps Jesus was even shaking his head in amazement as he pointed out to the disciples how very much this woman had given. Although he didn’t say it, you could almost tack on the phrase “Go and do likewise” as the conclusion of this story.
But I have come to realize that this angle on this story may very well be all wrong. But please don’t misunderstand: even though I am about to suggest a revision of how this story should be interpreted, even so this will take nothing away from the widow herself. We can safely assume that her heart was in the right place. She did give generously and out of genuine reverence and piety for God at that.
But it was not this that caught the attention of Jesus. Given what Jesus had said in verses 35-40, I can no longer imagine that his voice was full of appreciative wonder at the end of this chapter. In fact, I detect in the voice of our Lord a hint of scorn, of criticism, of anger, of astonishment that the situation was what it was.
This is one of many passages where the larger context has tended to drop away over the years but where the context is absolutely vital if we are to hear Jesus correctly. Because after all, this entire section of Mark’s gospel is harshly critical of the temple establishment. In Mark 12:38-40, Jesus attacks the very theology of the scribes. Their views of the Messiah, the Christ, were woefully inadequate. They prattled on and on about how the Christ would be David’s son, thus losing sight of the fact that the true Christ would be not just a distant relative of David but David’s Lord, David’s God. The scribes had played into the popular idea that one day a great-great-great grandson of David would show up and would lead a popular uprising and revolt against Rome. He’d be a human figure but a powerful one who would fulfill the people’s every political aspiration.
But by reminding the crowds of the divine dimension of the true Christ, Jesus was hinting hugely that things might turn out differently than the scribes thought. After all, once the Son of God, and not just the Son of David, came down to earth, there would be no predicting how things might go. God, after all, tends always to surprise us. His ways are not our ways. In fact, God might just turn the whole world upside-down and do a shockingly new thing. Of course, keep in mind that Jesus spoke these words less than 5 days prior to his own death on a cross. Talk about divine surprises! Nobody back then wanted a dead son of David hanging off a giant spit of wood. If the Christ were no more than David’s human relative, crucifixion would spell the end of his usefulness. A dead Christ would be no Christ and so you could literally cross out his name from the list of messianic candidates. But Jesus says that’s wrong. No one should pretend to have the identity of the Christ cased.
To the delight of the crowds, Jesus out-exegeted the supposed experts in the Scriptures. He attacked nothing less than their very theology. But he’s not finished yet. Next Jesus goes after their spirituality. In startlingly blunt terms, Jesus as much as calls the scribes hypocrites, charlatans, fakes, and pious pretenders. Doing the right things just for show, using clergy garb as a cover-up for an insincere heart is indeed the worst form of clergy abuse.
So Jesus pegs these clergy as vain, pompous, proud, arrogant. All of that is bad enough but the kicker–and obviously the key that unlocks the reason why we need a revamped view of the widow’s mite–is when Jesus says that the scribes devour the homes of the widowed. Unhappily, we have no clear idea what that meant. One commentary I consulted listed no fewer than six possible scenarios that could explain just how the scribes devoured the estates of widows. But because Jesus immediately mentions also their reciting of long prayers it may be that the scribes were essentially selling ministry, charging people for various acts of ministry service.
Whatever the specifics, it appears that the religious leaders were doing something that was making the already-vulnerable widow population feel obligated to give to the temple more than they frankly could afford. That’s why when Jesus then sees a widow giving away the last two coins she had to rub together, he sees in that not first of all an example of good stewardship in action (and so something that we should all try to imitate). What Jesus saw was a glaring example of how far off the beam the whole temple enterprise had gotten. This woman felt obligated to give away what little she had and although that revealed how earnest she was, it was an earnestness that had been manipulated. So when Jesus says, “That’s all she had to live on,” he said it with exasperation in his voice. She should not have done that. She should not have been told to do that.
Andre Resner points out in a commentary on this passage that Jesus’ closing words here were essentially a lament. As Jesus watched this widow walk away with now literally nothing to live on, he as much as said, “There goes another precious one down the tubes!” Small wonder that at the beginning of Mark 13, as the disciples, in good tourist fashion, call attention to the magnificence of the temple building itself, Jesus sneers that one day soon, the whole place would be sacked. Not one stone would be left cemented to another one, and given what he had just seen, you get the feeling that Jesus believed that destruction of the temple would be only just. They were building the thing by ill-gotten gain.
Viewing this passage in this way also helps us to recover a message of grace and hope. The way “The Widow’s Mite” usually plays out in sermons is all bad news stuff when preachers turn this into yet another item for the congregation’s “To Do” list, perhaps even scolding people for not doing better for the kingdom. Ironically, if that’s how we preach this text, we may be playing into the same problem the Pharisees had as they were also finding clever ways to motivate people to DO more for God than what they were already doing (including even widows who had nothing to give but were being shamed into giving more anyway).
A perspective of grace on this passage reminds us that we all live immersed in the prior grace of God in Christ. Everything we do in the Christian life—including giving to the offering plate—is an outflow and an overflow of that grace. This grace allows us to rest easy by taking joy in whatever we are able to do for God. Grace gives us the freedom to be who we have become as new creatures in Christ. We use our gifts and give of ourselves not because of some stern external obligation or pressure or because we’ve been made to feel guilty as we are manipulated by the church. Instead we are free to be who we are, free to let the Spirit move us along in ministry.
When preaching on Mark 12, grace, not guilt, needs to set the tone and lead the way.
This point has been noted in other sections of this posting, but the story of the widow’s mite will almost certainly be misinterpreted if we sheer it off from all that had gone on earlier in Mark 12 as well as from what happens immediately following this in the opening words of Mark 13. The context here dictates how we view this widow’s action—or better said, the context dictates how JESUS viewed this woman’s sacrificial giving. And we had best pay some attention to what is admittedly a semi-confusing exchange in verses 35-37 when Jesus gets underneath the pop definition of who the Christ would be by reminding everyone that he would not be just some super-descendant of David but God himself. If you are expecting just a human strongman to show up, you might be able to conduct “business as usual” even in the Temple establishment of the day. But if God Himself is going to show up . . . that would properly shake things up in ways the religious leaders of the day were clearly not prepared to deal with!
Those of you familiar with Dante’s The Inferno will recall the hellish punishment Dante imagined would come to hypocrites: for all eternity they would wear the most gorgeous of flowing robes, looking ever-so-lovely on the outside. But those robes would be lined with lead, making the very act of standing up straight an abiding agony. Such would indeed be a fit punishment for those who spent their lives harboring ugliness and selfishness on the inside even as they exuded nothing but superior piety on the outside.
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations:
The Lectionary has us skip the drama of Ruth 2 and then dips in briefly to Ruth 3 for the connection with Boaz and then zooms ahead to the very end of Ruth 4 for the “happy ending” of the tale and how it all points forward to King David. As preachers, we are either forced to fill in a lot of narrative details for the congregation or bank on the hope that the congregation is already very familiar with this story (and depending on where you are, you may or may not be wise to bank on that kind of biblical literacy!).
What we most certainly get in the final verses of Ruth is a return to fullness for the previously empty Naomi, who at the end of Ruth 1 made clear that not only was her and Ruth’s life completely empty, Naomi herself was “bitter” at God for all the ways he had afflicted her of late and so re-named herself “Mara” or “Bitter.” But as the story ends “Naomi” has gone from empty and bitter “Mara” to being full and wonderful “Pleasant” again (the meaning of “Naomi”).
In fact, oddly enough, the story ends up being more about Naomi than Ruth! That’s odd. After all Ruth is the one who snagged Boaz, married him, and then bore him a son, but as the book concludes, Ruth fades into the background a bit, even to the point that the women of Bethlehem declare “Naomi has a son.”
One wonders what Ruth made of that claim! It reminds me of times when someone will come up to one of my kids and—in the presence of also my wife, mind you—say something like, “You must be Scott’s daughter!” As my wife may gently remind such persons, she was more than vaguely involved in the birth process that brought about our daughter.
So what’s going on with all that attention to Naomi when the child Obed is Ruth’s son, not her mother-in-law’s? It may be that in part this is an attempt to round out the book. Since Naomi was introduced to us already in Ruth 1:2, we now round out the book with a return to Naomi. It may also be that since Naomi is the Israelite here and Ruth the outsider Moabite, the return to fullness for also Israel is better brought into focus if an Israelite is in focus as this story concludes.
But, of course, that’s just the wonder of Ruth: we know that the only possible reason this little story was preserved for us is because the very last word of the book gets to be “David.” Take away that descendant and no one would preserve the story about Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law. No matter how lyric or lovely the story, Ruth’s becoming David’s great-grandmother is the reason it’s in the Bible.
But again, that’s the wonder of the book: we don’t get David without someone coming from outside of Israel. The women of Bethlehem may have called little Obed “Naomi’s son,” but Naomi cannot even claim any DNA link with the little guy because even Boaz is a relation from Elimilech’s side, not Naomi’s side, of the family. Yet because of her connection with Ruth and Ruth’s having been once married to one of Naomi’s sons, everyone was kind of willing to let those little details slide a bit so that Naomi—and via Naomi all Israel—could claim Obed and the grandson he’d end up having in the person of David.
David, however, turns out to be more than his ancestry could have produced. That is, David would become Israel’s greatest king and the founder of the Messianic line, but Israel itself could not produce him. Israel, as symbolized by Naomi in this story, was empty, bitter, without prospects. Only when a Moabite came onto the scene is it possible for David to eventually be born. The one who would go on to solidify the kingdom of Israel and prepare the way for the coming of the Christ needed something—or someone—beyond Israel to be born.
Here then is a reminder of the peculiar and always surprising grace of God, a truth that was not lost on Matthew when he created his genealogy of the Christ in Matthew 1:1-17. Matthew went out of his way to include four women in his family tree of Jesus. The inclusion of women in a genealogy at that time was odd enough, but at the very least one would expect that any women included would be the top four matriarchs of Israel: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. But Matthew does not mention them. Instead he refers to—and directly names in three out of the four cases—four other women, each of whom was an outsider to Israel and several of whom had some dubious (sexual) stuff associated with her: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
Matthew included these four women as a set-up for the last surprise—the “holy irregularity” of Matthew 1, as one of my teachers used to call it—when Joseph is listed as “the husband of Mary” but not as the father of Mary’s son, Jesus. A sixteen-verse string of “begats” (or “the father of”) phrases gets snapped at the very end as Joseph is not given any credit for the existence of Jesus.
It’s kind of reminiscent of how Naomi cannot really take any credit for Obed—his existence depended on someone coming from the outside to open up a new future for not only Israel but also all those nations whom God promised to bless through Abram all the way back in Genesis 12.
Jesus was more than his ancestry could have produced. He was a gift of grace. The flow of salvation history depends on that grace of God, on God bringing about surprising new circumstances through surprising people who often appear from out of nowhere, from outside our usual circles and our usual sets of expectations.
The entire story of the Book of Ruth may look from one perspective to be no more than a string of fortunate events. Against the dictates of common sense, Ruth decides to stick with Naomi, leaving behind a much better probable future among her own people in Moab to go with Naomi to a place where—as Ruth 2 makes clear—she was vulnerable on multiple fronts on account of her outsider status. (Boaz had to take extra care that Ruth not be molested or raped, you may recall.) It made no sense for Ruth to go to Bethlehem, and once there, it was a long shot that she’d ever meet up with someone like Boaz (and an even longer shot that Boaz would do the right thing and find a way to become Ruth’s husband).
If you were a betting person . . . you know full well where you would have laid your money relative to Ruth’s prospects. That she survived at all is a miracle. That she became the key person in producing King David (and some centuries later the King of kings) is something beyond a miracle.
Preaching on the surprising conclusion to the Book of Ruth only a few scant weeks before Advent begins again gives us the opportunity to savor once again the glories of God’s grace, the startling twists of God’s providence, and all the ways by which the salvation we celebrate in the church ends up being history’s greatest surprise ending. God really is able to bring us from emptiness to fullness, from bitterness to joy, and as often as not God’s way of accomplishing all that goes way beyond whatever we might have been able to produce or to expect on our own.
From Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures and his character sketch of Ruth (Harper & Row, 1979, p. 148):
“Naomi was nobody’s fool and saw which way the wind was blowing long before Ruth did. She was dead-set on Ruth’s making a good catch for herself, and since it was obvious she had already hooked old Boaz whether she realized it or not, all she had to do was find the right way to reel him in. Naomi gave her instructions. As soon as Boaz had a good supper under his belt and had polished off a nightcap or two, he’d go to the barn to hit the sack. Around midnight, she said, Ruth should slip into the barn and hit the sack, too. If Boaz’s feet just happened to be uncovered somehow, and if she just happened to be close enough to keep them warm, that probably wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either. But she wasn’t to go too far. Back in Jericho, Boaz’s mother, Rahab, had a rather seamy reputation for going too far professionally, and anything that reminded him of that might scare him off permanently.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Few psalms are arguably more challenging to preach and teach than this somewhat quirky one. After all, it contains neither the vows nor calls to praise that characterize so many other psalms. Psalm 127, in fact, more closely resembles the kind of wisdom literature we find more commonly in books like Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. It’s no wonder some people ascribe it to Solomon. Nor is it surprising that worshipers sometimes find it hard to use it as a prayer (without some clever editing) the way we often do with other psalms.
Psalm 127 alludes to God’s indispensable role in cultural, familial and community life. Old Testament scholar Ray Van Leeuwen says the idea of “double agency” is central to it. By that he refers to our tendency to think of God and nature as well as God and people in terms of either divine or created, but not both.
Yet this, Van Leeuwen reminds us, is an unbiblical dichotomy. God the Creator and Sustainer often works out God’s purposes in part through people. God even sovereignly sometimes uses evil human intentions for God’s good purposes, as Joseph affirmed about his own brothers’ wicked plans for him. In fact, says Van Leeuwen, God’s work is often miraculous, not in the sense of disrupting the laws of nature, but in the way God works in and through naturally sinful and flawed people.
Psalm 127 teaches a fundamental human dependence on God for life’s most basic tasks. It speaks three times explicitly and once implicitly of the futility of human activity without God’s accompanying blessing. Unless, the poet writes in verse 1, God builds a house, construction workers do their work in vain. Here worshipers hear echoes of Jesus’ words about wise and foolish homebuilders. In fact, as one worshiper noted, one can hardly read all of Psalm 127 without hearing echoes of Jesus’ teaching, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.
Other worshipers have noted that building a house may have wider application. Some point to Ruth 4:1’s reference to Rachel and Leah who, by making a family, “built up” the house of Israel. Others suggest that the house of verse 1 might also refer to Christ’s Church, as well as local churches.
In verse 1 the poet also notes that unless God watches over a city, its night watchmen, in Eugene Peterson’s vivid imagery, might as well take a nap. In verse 2 the psalmist goes on to add that unless God blesses the work of gathering food, it too is useless. This assertion may echo Genesis 3:16-17’s curse on the ground. And in verses 3-5 the poet at least implies that those who try to have children will fail unless God blesses their efforts. Children are not, in other words, just the product of sexual intimacy. The poet refers to them as a “reward” from the Lord.
In fact, in vivid if puzzling language, verses 4 and 5 refer to children, especially sons, as a form of parental protection. She says they’re like “arrows in the hands of a warrior.” In the psalmist’s day God’s gift of sons brought their parents a form of security. The larger a family, the less it was subject to, for example, that misfortune that comes from not having enough workers to help feed the family. What’s more, if a father had to go to court at the city gate, a large number of sons would serve as a large pool of potential witnesses to his good character.
So what does all of this mean for 21st century worshipers? It serves as a vivid reminder that while work is a central human activity, even the hardest work doesn’t guarantee its success. Even the most vigorous, sustained work doesn’t always provide what’s needed. Think of people who try to hold down two or three jobs just to make ends meet for their families. Think too of those who try scratch out a living out of dry, infertile soil. Wealth or even comfortable living is not the automatic result of hard work. Productive work is a blessing from God.
In fact, while Psalm 127 refers to a limited number of activities that are meaningless unless God blesses them, Van Leeuwen points out that those activities are symbolic of all human cultural efforts that are made in service to the Lord. When, after all, we build houses, we use materials such as wood and stone that God created. What’s more, we fill our homes with things from throughout God’s creation. The city to which verse 1 refers also symbolizes the ways we organize our world and people. Those cities have political, social and economic elements, as well as cultural activities. Psalm 127’s symbolism offers those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the kinds of activities that flounder without God’s accompanying blessing.
Yet such preachers and teachers want to be very sensitive to the kind of question a worshiper recently raised. If the various houses we build, whether they’re homes, families, churches or some other human organization somehow fail, does that mean God has failed to bless them? If all our hard work fails to provide the food our families and loved ones need, does that mean that God has withheld God’s blessing from us? And, perhaps most poignantly, what about people who don’t have the “arrow” that is even one child, much less a “quiver full of” children? Has God turned God’s face away from them?
That’s one reason some scholars translate what the NIV translates as “blessed” in verse 7 as “happy.” “Blessed,” after all, connotes a kind of divine favor or even reward. “Happy” speaks of an emotional state, a response to the kind of circumstance that many children can produce. Verse 7 doesn’t imply those who don’t have children are the objects of God’s disfavor. Instead the psalmist suggests they are, at least sometimes, simply less happy.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 127 must do so carefully. After all, it easily leads to feelings of guilt or inadequacy. So preachers and teachers may want to emphasize this central message: any blessing we experience in our family, community and cultural lives is not the product of our hard work, careful planning or virtuous lives. It’s the result of God’s rich blessing. Success in any of those areas doesn’t breed any kind of arrogance or smugness. It breeds, instead, by the work of the Holy Spirit, humble thanksgiving to the Lord, the giver of life and all good things.
Few American families that have a “quiver-full” of children are more famous than the Duggars. As of this writing Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have 19 children. What’s more, until recently the Duggars also had their own reality television show.
On their official website (www.duggarfamily.com) they address the issue of why they have so many children. The Duggars believe “every life is sacred, even the life of the unborn.” After wife and mom Michelle had a miscarriage, they decided to “stop using any form of birth control and let God decide how many children we would have.”
The Duggars’ style of family planning (or lack thereof) as well as self-promotion can certainly be debated, even among God’s people. Certainly allegations of abuse and the ways they’ve chosen to deal with it have tarnished their witness. Yet their view of children reflects a literal reading of Psalm 127. After all, on their website they write, “God considered children a gift, a blessing, and a reward.” Perhaps the Duggars’ story and use of Psalm 127 may even serve as a kind of warning to interpret it carefully and wisely.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments and Observations
The lectionary reading for this Sunday is the high point of the argument of the letter to the Hebrews, but for many people today, including many Christians, it is the low point. Way back in 1926 Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a now famous sermon in which he labeled the whole idea of Christ’s once for all blood sacrifice as “pre-civilized barbarity.” As former adherents of the Jewish faith, the first readers of this epistle understood the imagery of that sacrifice very well. Today’s readers, on the other hand, may find all of this talk about sanctuaries and sacrifices, priests and high priests, Most Holy Place and blood sprinkled on the mercy seat, to be so much mumbo jumbo. If we’re going to preach on this text, we’ll have to do three things: show its connection to our lives today; show its roots in the nature of God as revealed in, particularly, Old Testament Scripture; and carefully lay out how this “pre-civilized barbarity” is really Good News.
The plain fact is that all of us have experienced the very human problem that this text addresses, namely, the experience of alienation from someone we love and need. It might be a parent or a child, a lover or a spouse, a friend or a colleague. At one time, your hearts and lives were one. But then you did something so egregious that the relationship was badly damaged, perhaps even irreparably broken. What would it take to bring you back together with the one you’ve hurt or offended or angered—words of apology, tears of contrition, displays of affection, appropriate gifts, personal sacrifices, years of penance? And what if, every time you made some gesture of reconciliation, you also repeated the behavior that caused the rift in the first place?
That’s the problem behind this whole idea of the once for all sacrifice of Christ. We are alienated from God by our sin. God is terribly hurt and offended and angered by our sin. And even when we try to make things right, we continue to sin and wound his love. We’ve experienced such brokenness in our human relations, but we simply cannot imagine how great the chasm is between sinners and God. We literally cannot fathom how much our sins hurt God, because we don’t understand how much God loves us.
That’s why we cannot understand the utter necessity of Christ’s sacrifice. Verse 23 uses that phrase in connection with the idea of purification. “It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things with better sacrifices than these.” Then the writer summarizes the good news of Christ’s sacrifice. It was necessary for Christ to sacrifice himself to make things right between sinners and God. Why was that necessary? Couldn’t God just forget about it? Why couldn’t God just extend his grace, forgive our sins, and accept us back? Verse 22 says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness?” But why? Why is that necessary?
The Bible roots that necessity in the nature of God, particularly in his holiness. When he laid out the entire sacrificial system in the book of Leviticus, the system that Christ’s sacrifice fulfills, God said again and again, “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev. 11:44, 45) In Leviticus, that holiness has the sense of purity, of cleanness, of being morally holy. But the deeper sense of holiness is otherness, difference, as in the Wholly Other.
So, we might say that God could and should just forget our sins– extend his grace, forgive our sins and accept us even with all our sins. We would do that for our children or spouse or friend. We wouldn’t demand a blood sacrifice before we would forgive. One well-known emergent theologian ridicules the idea of blood sacrifice with this caricature: “God asks us to forgive people. But God is incapable of forgiving. God can’t forgive unless he punishes somebody in place of the person he was going to forgive. God doesn’t say things like this to you—‘Forgive your wife and then go kick the dog.’” In other words, we wouldn’t demand punishment before forgiving people. So why should God?
The answer from Leviticus and the rest of the Bible is that God is not like us. We are like him, a little bit. But sin has distorted his image in us, so that we cannot reason from ourselves to God. We must reason about God based on his revelation of himself. And he says, “I am holy,” absolutely pure, completely without sin, and wholly other, totally different from us. His holiness is so pure that he cannot forgive without punishing the sin that caused the rift in the first place. But his love is so pure that he provided a sacrifice in our place to take that punishment. God is so holy that he can’t stand to even look on sin, and God is so loving that he sent his own Son to become sin for us and die our death.
In other words, any preacher who tries to preach on this text will have to deal with contemporary ideas about God in order to make the sacrifice of Christ intelligible, morally acceptable, and desirable Good News. The old temptation of making God in our image and thus serving an idol is as strong today as it was in the days of Baal. So here’s the great question facing anyone who dares to preach on this text or any other part of Hebrew’s extensive (some might say exhausting) treatment of the High Priesthood of Christ. Will we bow before the sensibilities of modern people or before the God of the Scripture who is other, wholly other than we might wish him to be?
What’s more, God is not only other; he is better than we might imagine him to be! That’s the point of this letter to the Hebrews. Those first readers knew the God of the Old Testament very well. In fact, they were mightily tempted to walk away from the new revelation of that God in Jesus Christ and return to all those Old Testament ways of worshiping. As we’ve seen, this epistle aims to prove to these drifting Christians that Jesus is better than anything Judaism had to offer. Here the author gathers all his arguments into this summary word about Christ’s sacrifice. If it was necessary that sacrifices were offered to purify all the elements of that old sanctuary, how much more was the sacrifice of Christ necessary?
And it was infinitely better. The author proves the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice by drawing an extended comparison between the Old Testament sacrificial system and the sacrifice of Christ in “these last days.” The entire Old Testament system was a copy of the heavenly original. The man made sanctuary of the tabernacle was a copy of heaven itself, the real sanctuary. In that copy, God was present symbolically in that luminous shekinah cloud that hovered between the cherubim over the cover of the ark, called The Mercy Seat. In heaven, God is actually present in all his glory.
In the copy, sacrifices are offered again and again, showing that their effectiveness is only temporary. In Jesus, a sacrifice has been offered once for all; its effectiveness is permanent. In the copy, a mortal high priest entered into the Most Holy Place once a year, every year, to sprinkle the blood of animals on the Mercy Seat to make atonement for the Jewish people. In the original, our Eternal High Priest has entered into heaven itself, into the very presence of God, once and for all to sprinkle his own blood as atonement for the sins of all God’s people. In the copy, the sacrifice of blood purified the tabernacle ceremonially, but it was not able to cleanse the conscience of the people. In the original, the sacrifice of Christ’s blood does away with sin. In the copy the blood stays on the furniture. In the original, that blood carries the sin away, so that it no longer stands in the breach between God and the people he loves.
The copy was practiced in the ages past. The sacrifice of Jesus has inaugurated “the end of the ages.” You know all about that copy, and you think you want to go back to it. “But now Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” In every way, the sacrifice of Christ is better.
What more could the author say? To make absolutely sure that his readers get the point, he repeats the “once” two more times and ends with a “once again.” He connects the “once for all-ness” of Christ’s death to our own death. Everyone knows (or least the Jewish people did back then) that human beings die once. Today, under the influence of Hindu ideas of reincarnation, many people think that we die and then return to try again and again until we get it right. The Bible is very clear that we die once and then comes judgment. That is the destiny of every human. In a similar way, it was the destiny of Jesus Christ to be sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people. We don’t have to work off our sins in repetitive cycles of existence; Christ has paid it all once and for all for everyone who will accept his sacrifice. As we die once and face judgment, Jesus died once so that we won’t have to worry about that judgment.
And, concludes the author, he will appear once again. Here the image is the high priest emerging from the Most Holy Place after making atonement by the sprinkling of blood. The story of Zechariah in Luke 1 gives us a sense of this event, though Zechariah had only gone into the Holy Place to offer incense. The people waited for him to re-appear. When the High Priest went into the Most Holy Place the waiting was even more suspenseful. Would God accept the sacrifice? Would the High Priest survive his encounter with the Holy One?
Well, says our author, Jesus will appear a second time, not to bear sin (he’s already done that perfectly and permanently), but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. Hebrews has highlighted several dimensions of salvation already: removal of guilt through the cleansing of our consciences, release from the bondage of sin through the ransom paid, forgiveness of sins through the shedding of blood. We believe that is true, but who of us has actually experienced the full reality of that salvation. We are already saved, but we have not yet received all of that salvation. So we wait for him to come once again, to part the veil that separates the copy from the original, and appear in all his glory bringing salvation to those who wait for him.
There is an old legend that the other priests tied a rope to the leg of the High Priest when he entered the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement. That way, if he died in that Holy Place, they could retrieve his body. Serious scholars tell us that didn’t really happen in Judaism, but it makes the point that atonement was deadly serious business. Would the High Priest re-appear, thus demonstrating that the sacrifice was acceptable, that atonement was accomplished, and that the sinful people were reconciled to their Holy God?
Recently there has been a flurry of scientific and popular interest in finding other planets that might sustain life. Scientists have determined what factors must be present before there can be life on other planets, and they have actually found many such planets scattered throughout the universe. However, all of their calculations are based on the notion that life must be carbon based, like life on planet earth. But what if there is another form of life altogether, life that is wholly other than our lives? That’s the stuff of scientific fiction right now, but who knows what we will discover as we probe the universe. So why should we think it so peculiar that God is wholly other than we are. Though we are bit like God, we cannot reason from ourselves to The Wholly Other. All we can do is accept God’s revelation of himself and let his word shape our ideas of God, even if they offend modern sensibilities.