November 05, 2018
Author: Doug Bratt
Our text’s Jesus is in Jerusalem during the last days of his life. He figuratively stands in the shadow of his upcoming betrayal and denial, trial and torture, suffering and death. Jesus is, in other words, preparing to give up virtually everything for the sake of the world he so passionately loves.
The specter of Jesus’ suffering seems to loom larger and larger as the tensions between the religious leaders and him escalate. Those leaders want to kill him. Jesus, however, keeps baffling and delaying them with his profound answers to their questions and challenges. He’s showing that he, not the religious leaders, is in charge of the timetable for his saving death.
Yet rather than avoiding his pursuers, Jesus basically turns to face them. In Mark 12:35-37 he, in fact, comes right out and asks them about one of the issues that most divides them from him: who is he? Jesus’ defense of his identity as God’s Son “delights” all but the religious leaders who listen to it.
I sense that emboldens Jesus to press his case for a proper posture before God and people. He, after all, continues his teaching on his identity by warning people about the religious leaders who wish to silence him. Jesus warns people to beware of those leaders’ spiritual “showiness.” He insists that more is going on than meets the eye with their religious activities. So, Jesus warns, his contemporaries must weigh their actions carefully.
Of course, that doesn’t surprise most of us. We’ve been taught, after all, to be suspicious of Jesus’ contemporaries who were religious leaders’ motives and actions. Yet we can’t understand what Jesus is saying unless we remember that his contemporaries highly respected those “teachers of the law.” They thought of them not as the bad guys we usually think of them as, but as the good guys.
Might we think about that this way? Revelations about child abuse have colored modern opinions about Roman Catholic priests. We even wonder why parents put their children in places where they might be so deeply harmed.
But priests have always been deeply respected by Roman Catholics. Their lofty spiritual status as kinds of mediators between God and God’s people engendered a deep trust among their parishioners. While we may now think of many priests as pariahs, their parishioners sometimes thought of them as virtual saints.
Yet while some priests I know are almost embarrassed by parishioners’ adulation, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day weren’t. Jesus says they, in fact, loved the attention. They loved to walk around in the virtual academic robes that were the long clothing they wore.
Those religious leaders’ clothing actually set them apart from the “commoners” around them. After all, as scholars point out, “blue-collar” workers couldn’t wear long robes because it might interfere with their work. Only religious leaders could wear long robes because they didn’t have to “stoop to” manual labor.
Yet attention’s not all the religious leaders loved. They also delighted in the way people greeted them with respect if not deference. The religious leaders also loved to make a big spectacle of striding toward and sitting in the important seats in the synagogues where everyone could see and admire them.
What’s more, they loved sitting at the head table of every church function. On top of all that, the religious leaders loved to offer long and flowery prayers for the sake of making a good impression. While those actions may have seemed spiritual, Jesus warns they’re signs that the religious leaders especially enjoy the attention they receive from people.
However, Jesus also points out that the religious leaders of his day don’t just crave attention. They’re also hungry for material things. So Jesus grieves, for example, how they “devour widow’s houses,” exploiting these defenseless people.
He portrays those religious leaders as being like animals or dragons that devour their prey that is vulnerable peoples’ possessions. So while they preen like pious saints, they actually act like wild animals that wolf down widow’s possessions.
But, Jesus warns in our text, ravenous religious leaders may get all they’ll ever get in this life. After all, God’s judgment will be especially harsh on them. They may have swiped people’s attention and widow’s homes for next to nothing. But in the end, Jesus warns, they’ll pay an exorbitant price for it.
As if to make his point, Jesus takes his seat right across from the place where people put their offerings in their form of a collection plate. Those collections, after all, went towards the care not just of the temple, but also its priests.
Yet people sometimes turned that act of worship into a way to gain attention. Rich people would throw brass, gold and silver coins into those collection plates that made a lot of noise when they landed. So by making their sizable contributions they were, in a real sense, calling attention to their generosity and themselves.
Jesus watches, by contrast, a widow approach the temple collection plate. This one whose home was precisely what the religious leaders loved to devour enters the one house where high and low, rich and poor worship. There this widow seems to give far less than the rich people do. She just puts in two measly cents that make only a fraction of the noise that the rich people’s offerings do.
It’s hard to overstate the physical contrast between the rich people and this poor woman’s offering. Yet Jesus insists we don’t know half of the size of the contrast between those offerings. “I’ll tell you just how sharp that contrast is,” he says to his disciples in verse 43. “This widow put more in the collection plate than all the others.”
“Are you kidding?!” we can almost hear those disciples at least quietly respond. “Are you not just blind, but also deaf? Didn’t you just see (and hear) how much those rich people put in and how little the widow contributed?”
Yet Jesus points out that the people who are rich, he points out, after all, give what they’ll never miss. They give figurative if not literal pocket change. By contrast, the widow extravagantly gives what she can’t afford. Is it her last dollar? Rent money? Mortgage payment? Food budget? The house the religious leaders liked to steal from people like her? Whatever it is, Jesus says, is everything she had to live on.
This is yet another of the seemingly endless texts that we struggle to apply to our faithful response to God’s grace. For one thing, Jesus doesn’t explicitly tell us to imitate the widow by giving our every last cent. But Jesus does make these observations about religious leaders, wealthy people and the widow who’s poor in the shadow of his giving everything for our sakes. What’s more, he follows our text with warnings about the signs of Jerusalem’s coming judgment.
So what might the Spirit be saying to citizens of the 21st century through this difficult text? Scholars, preachers and teachers tend to focus on the extent of the poor widow’s giving. We tend to emphasize the widow’s “everything – all she had to live on.”
But the fact is that if every one of us gave everything we had to Christ’s church, we’d need other people to take care of us. What’s more, such extreme generosity would also leave us unable to care for each other.
So what if instead of focusing on the widow’s “everything,” those who proclaim Mark 12 were to focus on her act of giving? After all, our text’s Jesus condemns the religious leaders who are interested only in receiving attention and material goods. He also at least implies that rich people threw their money in the collection plate in loud ways so that they would receive others’ attention and, likely, praise.
That shouldn’t surprise us, since all of us naturally prefer to receive things to giving anything. If it’s not material goods we long for, it’s people’s attention and praise. While it may be more blessed to give than receive, at least some of us find it easier to receive than give.
But we follow a Jesus who received little during his lifetime, but gave away everything. We follow a Jesus who gave us the heavenly realm’s glory to be born to unmarried peasants in someone’s guest room. We follow a Jesus who took little but lavishly gave of himself, his wisdom and his healing power.
I’m not at all sure God is as interested in how much God’s adopted sons and daughters give as in whether we give at all. Some of us may be able to give generously. Few of God’s people can give sacrificially. But all of us can probably give more than we receive.
Yet as soon as those who proclaim Mark this week’s gospel lectionary text admit that, we also have to admit that Jesus does seem to be summoning us to give the way both the widow and Jesus did. Mark 12’s preachers and teachers may find fertile soil as they till its ground for ways for God’s adopted sons and daughters to imitate God’s generosity with us.
In his book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, John Meacham describes the privileged early life of the United States’ 41st president. He paints a vivid picture of wealthy American families during the 1930’s.
Neal Plantinga summarizes Meacham’s picture this way: ‘The idea was that if you have great advantages you must make something of them and of yourself. Honor requires that you acknowledge your duty to give back to society. A favorite text in the Bush household was Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
‘The 12-13-year-old Bush buckled down. His parents were accomplished, powerful people, and George wanted to be a worthy son. His mother — an athlete — insisted that the trees on their estate were there to be climbed. She and Prescott Bush, George’s father, instilled great ambition in their progeny, always counseling that it must not show…
‘Meanwhile, “there were trees, and trees were to be climbed, no matter how high or how hard … There were older people, and older people were to be charmed, and charmed graciously. There were other boys, and other boys were to be treated well, with kindness and generosity.”
‘Life is a contest, and in all contests there are winners and losers. The subtle message to George Bush was, “be a winner and be easy about it.” Ambition inside and nonchalance outside were expected from the time George knew who his family was, and therefore who he was.’
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Author: Stan Mast
As the old church year comes to an end, the lectionary is already ramping up for the new year. With its stunning conclusion, our reading in Ruth anticipates Advent in an unmistakable way. As we prepare to welcome the coming of the long promised King of Israel, our reading tells us the surprising story of his origins.
What a wonderfully satisfying story it is! It has a hint of sex and lots of courage, strong characters and twists of plot, recurring themes and wonderful images, and, of course, a surprise ending. It satisfies those with literary sensibilities and, more important, it satisfies the deep longing of every human soul for a resolution of the unhappiness in life. To quote the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” That is literarily and literally true in this story.
Our reading for today follows the chapter in which the pluck and persistence of Ruth saves her mother-in-law’s life. On her own initiative, Ruth has secured a food supply for Naomi and herself and, in the process, has made a very promising contact with a kinsman of her late father in law. In the first part of our reading, Naomi launches a plan that will hopefully fulfill that promise.
Naomi wants for her daughter in law what every ancient Jewish mother desired for her daughter—a “home” or, literally, rest– the tranquility, peace, satisfaction and security that would guarantee Ruth’s future. This was especially important for Ruth and especially difficult because of her immigrant status. Her whole birth family was living beyond the Jordan in Moab, where her adopted marital family was buried. All she had was Naomi, and Naomi wasn’t going to live forever. Then where would Ruth be?
Naomi knew that Ruth’s only hope lay in an ancient Jewish law, the law of levirate marriage which required a near kinsman to marry the widow so that the line of the deceased husband wouldn’t die out and his property wouldn’t be lost to another family. Fortunately (or as the author subtly hints, providentially), there is such a kinsman on the scene, the delightfully noble Boaz. “Is not Boaz, with whose servant girls you have been, a kinsman of ours?”
Ruth has met this fine fellow and he has been kind to her, but the relationship has gone nowhere. Not willing to let things take their natural (or as some readers say, their supernatural) course, Naomi hatches a bold plan that involves no small risk to Ruth. “Go, ask him to marry you,” counsels Ruth. At least that seemed to be the intent of Naomi’s plan. It was certainly the result.
But the first time reader doesn’t know that. In fact, many readers see something more salacious than that in this story. The bathing and perfuming and dressing up, the sneaking onto the threshing floor and the “uncovering of Boaz’s feet” and the lying down there—all of that sounds like a seduction. In fact, some of the words used in this part of the story can have a sexual meaning. So, did Ruth sleep her way to the top? Was David (and by extension, David’s greater Son) born of an illicit midnight tryst? That seems to be where our lection is leading, as it ends with the suggestive advice of Naomi, “He will tell you what to do.” Such a reading of our text adds an earthy, deeply human element to the story of redemption, which shouldn’t surprise us given the human condition from which God intends to redeem us.
But the rest of the story in chapter 3 and the resolution of all the issues in chapter 4 take us in a very different direction than our racy readers anticipate. Rather than bedding her on the spot, Boaz arranges to wed her in a way that fulfills the absolute letter of the levirate law. Ruth proposes to Boaz in a way not unknown in the ancient Near East. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman redeemer.”
That mention of a “kinsman redeemer” ties into a complex law designed by God to protect widows and their children in a patriarchal society. Since women had no legal status in that day and were totally dependent on the protection of a man, God commanded the nearest relative of the deceased husband to marry the wife to care for her, preserve the family property, and produce an heir. In other words, the kinsman redeemer provided redemption of property (in the event that the widow had to sell it to avoid destitution), redemption of persons (in the event that the widow or her children were about to be sold into slavery to pay off debts), redemption of blood (to avenge a wrong done to the widow and her family), and redemption of family (when there were no heirs to take over the property and protect the widow). All of which is to say that the duties of a kinsman redeemer were no small matter.
That complexity is exactly what Boaz plays on in the scene at the city gate in chapter 4. As Boaz had told Ruth, there was a kinsman closer than he was. To get that nearer relative out of the way, Boaz handles the man in a very clever fashion. Though the man was eager to add to his real estate holdings by purchasing the land of Naomi’s dead husband, he didn’t want to jeopardize his own estate by marrying Ruth. So he gladly and freely gave up his rights as kinsman redeemer. With the blessings of the city elders, Boaz is given permission to marry Ruth.
That might have been the end of the story, if legalities were the issue. But the real issue is not legal; it is genealogical. That’s where the whole story is headed. That’s why the lectionary reading omits most of chapters 3 and 4; it wants to get us to the marriage and the sexual union and the birth of a male heir. “So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. Then he went in to her.” And a child was conceived.
But the writer of the story wanted us to know that the Lord, Yahweh, has been behind and in all the scenes of this story. He/she does this by explicitly mentioning Yahweh in these last verses. “And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.” She who was unable to conceive for ten years with her first husband, Mahlon, gives birth to a son immediately with her second husband. But it wasn’t just Boaz’s virility; it was Yahweh’s power, as it was with Sarah and Rachel, Hannah and Elizabeth, and, of course, the Virgin Mary. Clearly, this is a special child.
The women in the city know that. “Praise be to Yahweh who this day has not left you without a kinsman redeemer.” They mean more than they know, for this boy will be not only Ruth’s kinsman redeemer, but also the redeemer of Israel and the world. What the women wish for this child will come true in ways they couldn’t imagine. “May he become famous throughout Israel!” And the blessing he will give to his mother will extend to Israel and the whole world by way of his grandson and the ultimate Son of David. “He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age.”
Naomi doesn’t understand the depth of all those words yet. All she knows is that her emptiness has been filled again. The woman who had nothing at the beginning of the story now has a grandson in her arms. The woman who said, “the Lord’s hand has gone out against me,” is now experiencing the Lord’s gracious hand. What an encouragement to all the empty handed women and men among God’s people. In your hopelessness, there is a kinsman redeemer who will restore your life in ways you can’t imagine.
That general message of hope becomes distinctively messianic in the last words of our text, when, out of the blue, our writer announces that the child born to Ruth and Naomi is the grandfather of David. Oh, so that’s what this story is about in the long run. That’s why it is in the Hebrew Bible. It tells the story of Israel’s greatest king, a king who came from God’s gracious hand at a time when Israel was at its lowest, like Naomi. What a message for Israel in the time of the divided Kingdom, in the depression of the Babylonian exile, in the doldrums of the intertestamental period, in the agony of the Roman occupation. You can trust that Yahweh is working behind the scenes to provide a kinsman redeemer who will restore your life to fullness again.
Then, in the fullness of time, a virgin conceived and bore a son, and his name was called Immanuel. As expected, he was born in the little town of Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2) Once again, the “house of food” was filled with the Bread of Life. The God who secured the line of David in a most unexpected way in this story of Ruth has now secured the throne of David in an even more unexpected way. The inclusion of a Moabitess in the line of the Messiah anticipated the birth of a Jewish baby who would become the Savior of the World. He would save the world in a most unexpected way, by humbling himself and becoming a servant and dying on a cross. No wonder the son of Ruth was called Obed, which means servant. As the Servant Songs of Isaiah say, the Servant will carry our sins to the cursed cross in order to give us life abundant forevermore (see especially Isaiah 53).
The message of hope to all the Naomi’s of the world, to the nation of Israel, and to the world is heard in the words of the women’s chorus surrounding a stunned but happy Naomi: “Praise be to Yahweh, who this day has not left you without a kinsman redeemer.” His name is Obed. His name is David. His name is Jesus.
The recent spate of sexual assault allegations against important men (Weinstein, Spacey, Rose, Kavanaugh, et al) and the resultant tsunami of outrage among women leading to the birth of the #metoo movement stand in sharp contrast to the nobility, decency and purity we see in this story. There is no bashfulness about sex in the story of Ruth and Boaz, but it is all so proper and legal and, well, covenantal. Sex figures prominently in the story of redemption, culminating in the story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, but it’s not about lust or abuse. It’s about men and women acknowledging their sexuality, but channeling it into the God-ordained institution of marriage.
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
Just offhand, I thought that the title of a sermon on Psalm 127 might be “The Cure for insomnia,” inspired by that delightful line: “the Lord gives his beloved sleep.” Of course, that’s a gross reduction of the breadth of the Psalm, but it does point to its multi-level meaning.
One level of the Psalm is hinted at by its title. We don’t often pay attention to the titles given in our Bibles, but in this case it’s helpful to notice that this is another of the Psalms of Ascent, of which we have had several in this season. Recalling that they were pilgrimage songs singled out as especially helpful for use on the great pilgrimage feasts of Israel, the final stage of which was the ascent to Zion.
The title also tells us that that it’s “Of Solomon.” Solomon, of course, was the builder of the great First Temple in Jerusalem. He was given the task when the Lord refused to let his father David build it because his hands were soaked in blood.
So the word “house” takes on special meaning here. The people are on their way to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, the house of the Lord. Solomon, and later the returning exiles, took great care to build the Temple as a beautiful place of worship. It was a stunningly impressive piece of architecture based on the original plans given to Israel in the Wilderness. And Israel took great pride in it.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” There’s an implicit warning here to the pilgrims on their way to the house of the Lord. They must be careful not to place too much stock in the beautiful building they have erected. Not that it’s wrong to have such a Temple; after all, God had given directions for it.
The Temple is a symbol, a sacrament, if you will, of something much more real and important. The true house of the Lord is the people of God themselves. “I will dwell with them….” (Ex. 29:45, Lev. 26:12, Rev. 21: 3) At this level of the Psalm, “Unless the Lord builds the house” calls Israel to remember that they are God’s people, God’s house, and that unless they reflect the architecture of God’s own will and purpose, the building of the Temple is in vain.
Taken at this level, the Psalm is also a word for the church today. So much of the chatter in pastoral circles is about how we build the church. We are awash in ideas about the techniques of church planting, church leadership, and church growth. Pastoral entrepreneurs build mega-churches, often using the techniques borrowed from the media and entertainment culture.
In all this building activity, the Psalmist reminds us that “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” That is not to say that nothing good can come from our church building efforts, or that God’s Spirit is absent from it. But it is a solemn reminder that building the church is ultimately God’s work. Unless it is built solidly on the foundation of Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit through the Word, it is in vain.
So, in this sermon we might well ask, who is building the church? What is our foundation? Are we open to the energy, guidance, movement of the Holy Spirit?
The next verses of the Psalm open to another level of meaning.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.
This can also relate to the work of Temple/church building, of course. What pastor or church leader hasn’t lost some sleep by “eating the bread of anxious toil over the plans, tensions, and worries that come from hard work of church building. But on a larger plane, this verse relates to all of us in the toil and work of everyday life.
We live in a time of great change. A technological revolution is bulldozing the landscape of our lives, and we are frantically trying to keep up with it. There are always new techniques to be learned, new threats to our livelihood that upset our plans, social upheavals that challenge our ways of thinking and living. And we are inundated in it minute by minute by being always “connected” via the media. We don’t even have the blessed peace of ignorance since we can now know everything that’s happening around us.
One of the results of this connectedness is that, we’re told, an epidemic of sleeplessness. The more connected we are the less we sleep. We are constantly wired, which is not conducive to slumber. Some people even brag about how little they sleep. We see Tweets and posts that carry a time stamp in the middle of the night.
The Lord “gives sleep to his beloved.” That doesn’t mean that God is like a Xanax that calms our nerves. One way the Lord gives his beloved sleep is by living in his creation as he has given it to us. One of the gifts of creation is the rhythm of time– day and night, weekday and Sabbath, work and rest. But we fight against that rhythm rather than live comfortably in it, trying to grab more time for our work and to remain connected. A wired person does not sleep well.
Another way God gives sleep is by living in that constant refrain of the Psalms to trust in the Lord, or “wait upon the Lord.” The wired world, the connected self is living as though they must somehow be on top of it all, always trying to be in control. When we are wired into God and his creation, we give up control to the one who has the world in his hands. That brings on a blessed drowsiness, as we drift into the deep sleep of those who do not have the world on their shoulders.
The last verses of the Psalm seem disconnected with the rest. “Children are a heritage from the Lord.” These verses are also more culturally embedded in the life of ancient Israel. It talks about appearing at the gate of the city, the place where disputes were handled, backed up by a “platoon of strapping boys.” (James L. Mays in “Psalms”, a book also in the list at https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/resources/books/ot-recommended-commentaries-psalms/)
How does the preacher bridge the cultural gap here? Carefully, for one thing. There is a movement of Evangelical Christians who have adopted the term “Quiverfull” after this Psalm. They want to populate the world with more “Bible-believing” Christians who will take over society for God’s kingdom. They take seriously the creational command to ” be fruitful and multiply.” I’m not sure that’s what Jesus meant when he called us to make disciples.
Yet, there may be something here that speaks to our time. I’ve read recently that fertility in the western world is way down, to the point that in many advanced countries the population is not replacing itself. Now, this has been used as a xenophobic scare tactic to make sure that our race, ethnicity, or national identity is being threatened. But maybe there’s more in the text than that.
If children are a heritage from the Lord, then why do we have less of them? We can discern several reasons:
Children cost money and time, and in that way they may be a burden or a drag on our individual plans and goals.
What will become of the next generation? I’ve heard people say something like, “I’m not sure I want to bring more children into a world like this.”
Fewer people today are willing to enter the covenant of marriage which entails a commitment to one’s spouse and the responsibility of having children.
This cultural phenomenon also seems related to the main theme of this Psalm. When we turn away from trust in God, and do not live by the patterns of his creation children become a problem rather than a gift and a “heritage from the Lord.”
And perhaps the “Quiverfulls” are not entirely wrong in their approach. God does, in fact, work through his covenant with future generations. One of the main ways (certainly not the only way) which his church grows is through God’s covenant blessing to “be God to you and your children after you (Gen. 17:7, Acts 2:39). That’s why the tradition of the church going back almost to the beginning is to baptize children.
Again, we see that God works his purpose through his creation, not in spite of it. The creation is good, and children are a “heritage from the Lord.” This is not an argument against birth control or family planning, as some Christians would allege. This is a recognition that trust in God and in the gifts of his creation is essential for a flourishing of life in 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:
1). On the idea of building the house of God, or the church today, the recent passing of Eugene Peterson brings to mind his deeply challenging and often cogent warnings against the ways we live as Christians today.
- The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at the …moment.
Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best, p.150, InterVarsity Press
- This is the Americanization of congregations. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques and organizational flow charts, and then energized by impressive motivational rhetoric.”
Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson. p. 23-24
2). On living in the rhythms of God’s creation, Peterson was a great admirer of the work of Wendell Berry. In this passage from Berry’s novel, Jaber Crow, Jaber, the main character and town barber, is reflecting on what he thinks is missing in his preacher’s sermons. He would constantly say that:
We must lay up treasures in Heaven and not be lured and seduced by this world’s pretty and tasty things that do not last but are like the flower that is cut down [the preachers taught]…They [had] a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of his works – although they could tell you that this world had been made by God himself.
What they didn’t see was that it is beautiful, and that some of the greatest beauties are the briefest. They had imagined the church, mystery. To them, the church did not exist in the world where people earn their living and have their being, but rather in the world where they fear death and Hell, which is not much of a world.
…This religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world was a puzzle to me. To begin with, I don’t think anyone believed it. I still don’t think so. Those world condemning sermons were prettiest clothes. Even the old widows in their dark dresses would be pleasing to look at. By dressing up on the one day when most of them had leisure to do it, they signified their wish to present who heard those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries. While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, young husbands and wives and the courting couples sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of their children. And when church was over they would go home to Heavenly dinners of fried chicken, it might be, and creamed new potatoes and creamed new peas and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk. And the preacher and his family would always be invited to eat with somebody and they would always go, and the preacher, having just foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish. Jaber Crow, p. 160-162
Hebrews 9:24-28 [10:11-18]
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging Into the Text:
I imagine that by this time, you preachers out there might be getting a little burned out with Hebrews and its priests and sacrifices and temples, and worried the congregation may feel the same way. Some commentators think that Hebrews is not so much an epistle in the usual sense, but a long sermon, which we are then breaking down into our 15 or 20 minute segments. That’s what makes it so hard for preaching. In a single sermon you expect to move around a single point from different angles, which is what the writer of Hebrews does. In multiple sermons, this might seem a bit repetitive.
The fact is that this text and last week’s (9: 11-14), while there are some new aspects, revolve pretty much the same ideas– earthly and heavenly sanctuary, Christ’s perfect and complete sacrifice. So I have a suggestion to make that might help, unless you feel that the lectionary is as inspired as the scriptures it divides into sermon-size segments.
The suggestion is to add a part of next week’s reading 10: 11-18 to the reading this week. If you’re afraid this might take away some punch from next week, notice how the text works rather than the chapter and verse divisions. Heb. 10: 11-18 actually rounds off and powerfully summarizes the whole argument that’s been developed from 4:14. Then at 10: 19, the writer (preacher) really begins the application portion of the sermon with the words “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence….” And here begins a really new section which applies the meaning of all the foregoing material about Christ’s High Priestly sacrifice to the life of the church.
So, that’s what we are going to do here, and those of you who want to stick with the lectionary as it is, can drop out when we enter the new section.
Hebrews has already been introduced to the two main ideas elaborated here: 1. The earthly sanctuary as a copy or type of the heavenly, and 2. The Day of Atonement as a type of the event of Jesus’ death on the cross. How much you discuss them now depends on how much you have dealt with them already.
One element here that might be worth exploring further is that Jesus now enters the heavenly sanctuary “to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” Here Hebrews picks up the theme with which it began. Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who has been made one with his human brothers and sisters.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (2: 14-15)
The wonderful truth here is that Jesus’ ascension, or as Hebrews describes it, his entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, means that we enter there with him. He is in God’s presence on our behalf. Too often, Christians conceive of the ascension as a sort of escape from the trials and degradations of this world. Hebrews wants us to understand that he ascends to the heavenly sanctuary, the dwelling of God, as our personal representative before God’s throne.
On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered with the blood of bulls and goats to sprinkle on the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies. He did this while the people waited anxiously outside. There was a sense of danger attached to this entrance into the place of absolute holiness. Would the High Priest emerge unscathed, or would the sacrifice be unacceptable and the High Priest die on the spot?
In Christ’s ascension, Hebrews tells us, we do not wait anxiously to see whether the sacrifice is acceptable. Now referring to the sacrifice of the cross, it says, “He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to bear the sins of many.” The cross of Christ is the one perfect and complete sacrifice for sin. It was ordained by God in eternity and willingly carried out by the Son as one of us.
And now, through Christ’s ascension, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God is not just an historical event, but a cosmic event, ratified and celebrated beyond the times and tides of human history at God’s throne. John pictures the celebration in Revelation:
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8 When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 They sing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from[b] every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving[c] our God,
and they will reign on earth.”
So, we are not like the ancient Israelites anxiously waiting to see if our High Priest appears once more or is destroyed. We do not have to wonder if the sacrifice is enough to cover us. We are confident that Christ’s sacrifice is perfect and complete, and, therefore, we “eagerly wait for him.” to come from the heavenly sanctuary to save us and the whole creation in a final and complete victory over sin and death.
The writer [preacher] of Hebrews offers an analogy. “Just as it is appointed for mortals to die once and after that the judgement, so Christ, having been offered up once, to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
Mortals die once, not many times, and upon their death they will appear before the judgement seat of God. But Jesus, our human brother has died once and for all, and In this one death he deals with finally and completely with sin. In his death sin is not only judged it is removed. So, when he appears it is not to deal with sin, that is, it is not to judge, but to save from judgement “those who eagerly wait for him.”
Notice also the way in which the instigation of this once for all sacrifice is described. It says that Christ was “offered up once to beat the sins of many.” Offered up implies that it was at the instigation of someone else. So, on the one hand Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the age to bear the sins of many,” and, at the same time he was offered up once.” Both are true, and both are necessary to understand the atonement.
The Son was “offered up” by the Father. Some have seen this as a form of “child abuse.” God punishes the Son, even as the Son begs for release in the Garden of Gethsemane. At the same time, the Son willingly offers himself: “not my will, but your will be done.” The atonement is a movement of love in which the whole of the Triune God is deeply committed and involved.
If you choose to include 10: 11-18 as suggested, the extent of Christ’s one sacrifice is stated even more powerfully. “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God….’” Notice the three words or phrases that characterize Christ’s sacrifice: “single”, “for all time,” “he sat down.”
One offering is enough for sin, and not only for single sins, but for sin through all time, past, present, and future. The image of Jesus seated at God’s right hand further accentuates this. You only sit down when all the work is done. The servant always stands ready to do more, but the Son has done it all in the offering of himself, and he sits.
With this emphasis on the judgement having already taken place in the death and ascension of Christ, it may be important to notice a caveat that appears later in Hebrews, in a section not covered in the lectionary readings. It comes after next week’s text in which the writer/preacher urges the congregation to continue to meet together for mutual encouragement. “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (10: 26-27)
This is one of the periodic warning texts in Hebrews that seem to almost contradict the main point. The writer/preacher wants to make sure the congregation knows that Christ’s sacrifice does not cover heedless, willful sin. There is no cheap grace here. Grace is for the ones who eagerly await his appearing.” Hebrews teaches, as do Jesus and Paul, that those who put their trust in Christ will also follow him in obedience and commitment. As Jesus puts it, “By their fruits you shall know them.” (Matt. 7:16)
That doesn’t mean, of course, that they will no longer sin but that in their continuing sinfulness. they continually confess their sins and seek to put it behind them. (I John 1: 2: 1-2)
Preaching the Text:
1). Preaching is a larger aspect of our pastoral care than we think. Most pastors have had the experience of someone from the congregation coming to see you and telling you that they just cannot feel forgiven. Guilt and shame continues to ravage their hearts and minds. It may not necessarily stem from some particularly heinous act, but from a more general sense of unworthiness, of lostness.
These people, known or unknown to you, are a primary audience for this sermon. They need to hear, again and again, the simple but staggering gospel message that each and every sin, including theirs, has been dealt with once and for all on the cross. Think of them as you preach this Sunday.
2). Related to the continuing sense of guilt above, Christians sometimes have the idea that guilt is the natural habitat of Christians. We’re supposed to feel guilty because God always has his eye on us. They expect to be whipped with guilt by the preacher as though that’s their job. The Bible, however, speaks of the destructive power of guilt in Psalm 32 and elsewhere. Guilt does nothing to prevent us from sinning, but has the opposite effect of making us more likely to sin. That’s because we naturally act out who we are, and if our identity is of a guilty person, that’s the way we will act.
The identity we have in Christ through our baptism is that we are redeemed, and that our sins have been dealt with once and for all. Our call is to live out of that identity.
3). If you have Holy Communion this week (which, I think belongs in Christian worship each and every week according to the pattern of the Scripture and the early church) we have a tangible, sacramental affirmation of this text. According to John Calvin and the Reformed churches, as well as many others, receiving the body and blood of Christ actually feeds us with the once for all sacrifice of Christ. According to these tradition, the preaching of the word proclaims forgiveness and the sacrament confirms it.
The Heidelberg Catechism puts it this way in Q and A 75:
Q. How does the holy supper remind and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his benefits?
A. In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup in remembrance of him. With this command come these promises: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.