Sermon for the Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
The texts tonight are not without their challenges! Between the beginnings of Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings in Mark, to sorting through the end of an old covenant and the embracing of the new one in the ‘Hebrews’ passage, there is a lot to chew on – and much more than could be addressed in a 10-12 minute sermon. However, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.
To listen to the sermon, press play:
Firstly, let’s consider the historical context of what’s been read. We can imagine Jesus and his disciples strolling out of the temple, the heart of culture and worship for the Jews at the time. We can hear the effort to impress in the statement: “Check out this amazing structure, Teacher…Isn’t it incredible?” The disciples were familiar with temple life, and no doubt the temple itself was a point of pride and accomplishment for all of the Jews – a massive, dominant structure. Jesus’ response was like a pinprick to a balloon. “It’ll crumble to the ground. Every last stone.” What a downer. But, He spoke prophetically as indeed, it did crumble with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D, and with its destruction – the end of temple life.
The book of Hebrews can be dated to within the decade prior to Jerusalem’s fall. It’s addressing Jewish Christians, most of whom had likely not witnessed Jesus’ ministry first hand, but rather come to faith through the testimony of eye-witnesses who had been around during Jesus life and death. Many books in the New Testament are letters sent back to church communities established after Christ’s resurrection – and most are addressing issues that arose as people attempted to work out their new faith and shake their ‘old ways’. Often, Jesus’ teachings were mixed with paganism or other forms of religious or cultural practice, resulting in warped doctrines, power plays within church leadership and, simply, false teaching. The book of Hebrews is not entirely dissimilar. The Hebrews came to Christianity with cultural and religious baggage that was heavy to carry as they “pressed forward” in Christ.
Just imagine for a moment, the challenges they faced. Generation after generation had been in captivity of one kind or another. They were divided in political and socio-economic ways. Their own leaders had been instrumental in killing the Messiah in whom they now believed. Talk about ‘brothers against brothers, fathers against sons’. Now not only were they part of a persecuted minority as Christians, they were also no longer sheltered by or integrated with their former communities, and maybe even their own families. They were a community very much in transition, trying to sort out what their faith in Jesus should look like and be, while still bearing the memories and habits of old systems, old practices. It would have been so tempting, especially under persecution and feelings of alienation to look backward at what was, to the priests offering their sacrifices and the familiarity of what they’d always known. The problem was – there was nothing to go back to, and the reality of this in the spiritual sense would be punctuated profoundly when the stones of the temple came crashing down just a few years later.
Addressing these issues, this ‘letter’ to the Hebrews brilliantly draws upon Jewish history and cultural understanding for its theological apologetics. It firmly establishes the superiority of Christ and confirms the gospel by tracing the Hebrews’ own story and God’s promises to them, right back to Abraham. It reminds them that the Old Covenant was provisional. It was never meant as a lasting solution. If we think of the old covenant as a contract, all of the terms of the contract were met in Christ. And He established a new contract – grace – unmerited favor available to all because he gave His blood, once and for all. If you were a Jewish Christian, struggling with your new faith and tempted to go back to the old contract, it no longer applied.
To run back to the familiar rule book of the law, would be running back to a system that had been warped and manipulated –that had become about public and grand displays of righteousness – who prayed the loudest, gave the most, who was important. This system, even in its best incarnation, could never make anyone holy. It was never intended to. The old contract, in fact, was intended to reveal the impossibility of earning holiness, hence the continual sacrifices made for sin. But the practice of animal sacrifice, which would become obsolete, in the spiritual sense no longer atoned for sin – Jesus did that, and without Christ, there is no atonement for sin. Furthermore, to rely upon the law, as Paul aptly writes, means having to live up to the whole of the law, or be subject to the judgment of God for not keeping it in its entirety. And while the believer relies upon, leans on, abides in and clings to Christ for salvation, understandably many Jewish believers might also have struggled with the idea of approaching God. Under the Old Covenant it was the priests who did that. And the Presence of God was hidden behind the veil in the Holy of Holies. God was inaccessible in the personal sense.
Indeed, cultural and religious baggage made living ‘life in Christ’ very challenging for Jewish believers. They had to learn the new Contract…the new covenant. They needed encouragement – reminders that God established this new contract and that He keeps all of His promises, and that the veil is now lifted – we may boldly approach the throne of grace with full confidence that we are cleansed of unrighteousness. There is now access – personal access – to the Holy of Holies. And the only law of concern is that written upon the heart by the Holy Spirit. They were also encouraged to continue to meet together, to stick with and strengthen each other as they learned to “be” in Christ, to trust in Him; to accept being clothed in His righteousness just because of grace – as opposed to outward acts, offering sacrifices and obeying the various laws.
These truths may have been more difficult for the Jews than for other cultures that came to Christ. It would have been hard to not mix up the two covenants or try to juggle both. After all, the One True God was not new to them. They had been the chosen people, the ones to whom God had given the original promise. They had a history with God rooted in tradition and scripture. These ‘old ways’ would have been tough to shake. But I wonder if we can relate. We all come to faith with diverse, sometimes distorted, paradigms, upbringings, judgments, even religious or spiritual teaching. In fact, some of us came to Christ in the midst of and even despite some pretty crazy ideas maintained by Christian churches! We are a real mixed bag, this community we call saint benedict’s table! I wonder what a New Testament letter might be to us. What hang-ups do we have? What ‘old ways’ are getting mixed up with the new thing Christ is doing in us? Or, to steal from NT Wright on these texts, what temples in our own lives may need to come down, things that hinder us from experiencing the entirety of the relationship God desires to have with us?
We too need to learn God’s new contract, and how to distinguish what belongs and what is ‘now’, or should now be ‘nul and void’. Let’s be assured; God’s contract, the new covenant, is not like the contracts of this world – filled with loopholes and able to be ignored or breached, sometimes with few consequences. God’s covenant is sure, and all of God’s promises are ‘yes and amen’ in Christ – God keeps His word. It endures forever, unlike earthly temples that can be destroyed. Learning God’s promises adds to our confidence as we boldly approach the throne of grace; so that when we pray, we know what to ask for and believe. We can also ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit who leads us in all things; who writes God’s law on our hearts and gives us divine wisdom. And as the Hebrews were encouraged to do, let’s not stop meeting together – growing and learning together; challenging and strengthening one another…teaching one another the Word and helping each other to discern what is right and true as we transition from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’.