Today, we are going to finish up our sojourn through the book of Hebrews with a bit of Sacramental theology. I see your faces. Yes, you heard me right. The sermon today will be more sacramental theology in nature than, perhaps, regular attenders are accustomed when it comes to my preaching. What can I say? I have a new assistant I have to impress.
Now, before you decide this is a great time to catch a wink, let me use this bit as a commercial. I will barely touch on some ideas that Tom and Larry will no doubt explore in much greater detail in the weeks to come in the Sunday morning Bible Study class on Hebrews. If you are intrigued by anything that comes out of my mouth this morning, join us as we delve much deeper into the Scriptures. For that matter, consider joining us for Genesis on Tuesday evenings, where we are looking at the Holy Family – the family that put the fun in dysfunction! Or join us on Monday mornings as we explore the psalms. Or join us on the Thursday evenings as we wrestle with our faith claims and the testimony of the world around us. There is more information available on all that over in the Parish Hall after the service. Back to the sermon . . .
Regular attenders know I have a critical eye and mouth for our Lectionary editors. They break up stories and periscopes for reasons known only to themselves. They avoid “tough” readings because, we I guess because they do not realize that life is sometimes tough. I suppose, to be generous, the new lectionary committee tried to make things easier on preachers. On many weeks, there is a theme that is meant to unite the readings and allow the preacher to cover and of the readings but for you, the congregation, to hear the same general message as all other congregations. I don’t know that it works well, but that seems to have been one of their intents.
Those looking closely at today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews will notice that six verses are skipped in today’s reading. I must confess I cannot fathom a reason to skip the verses in question. They provide the reason, the theological justification for why we practice mutual love, why we gather in worship together, and why we serve others in God’s Name.
To take us back a few weeks, though, the author has been building to this for a couple chapters now. Last month the author reminded us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not yet seen. He or she then went on to remind us that our faith is not dissimilar to the faith of Abraham and Sarah, of the faith demonstrated by the couple that sojourned through the Land, never receiving the promise in full, yet trusting that God would keep His promise to them. The next week, Holly’s first, we chatted about all those names. I offended Austin and Vaugh by reminding us that Samson was the right tackle of faith. Not really. They laughed, too. But I reminded us that, although each of those names mentioned accomplish great things in God’s Name, they were normal, everyday people. They had doubts. Sometimes they obeyed. Often they sinned. Sometimes they argued with God. But in those moments of obedient trust, God accomplished great things through them and reminded each one of us that He can accomplish great things through us! He can feed the hungry. He can free the slaves! He can care for the sick and wounded. He can even defeat armies. But He accomplishes that work through men and women like you and me living out our lives faithfully.
Last week, Holly preached on Luke and the healing on the Sabbath. While she was preaching on that, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews was reminding us that we will one day stand before our Lord as He completes re-creation. Once more He will shake the earth, and He will shake heaven. Those of us who claim Him as Lord will find ourselves standing in full view of our inheritance. And make no mistake, as good as life seems to be for many of us in the Nashville/Brentwood area, these good things pale when compared to what the Lord has planned for us. Think of that for a second. It seems outrageous. But we are Music City. Does anyone here doubt that the angelic choir will be better by orders of magnitude than any music artists in our city can produce? And that is just the music. If His attention to detail is that good, imagine the food, the architecture, the light, and anything else you esteem . . .
This week, the author wraps up his or her encouragement to this group that is disappointed that they are suffering, that the Lord seems delayed in His return. We might be sharing in the doubts of the Letter’s initial audience. For those entering high school now, 9-11 is a historical event, just like peace. For the entirety of their lives, we as a nation have been at war. What are the consequences of that? I know we like to pretend that the great economic turmoil caused by the housing bubble has passed, but it has passed Nashville because we are growing so quickly. Even some of us, though, as fortunate as many Adventers are, still are not back to where we were in 2006-7, economically speaking. And many of our fellow Americans are worse off. I know politicians like to tout how unemployment is down, but how many people have given up finding a job equivalent to their job from before the meltdown? How many are working two or three part-time jobs because full-time employment is simply not available? How many find themselves pressured by bosses or owners to give more time for less money, or even to give money, for the privilege of “having a job?”
Speaking of politicians. One major party candidate has an unfavorable rating of about 2/3; the other major party candidate has an unfavorable rating of ¾. Should we really be wondering why this is a weird election? Can we understand why so many people have lost hope in the American dream? Can you imagine John Hancock and George Washing and whatever hero of our country ever thinking the future campaign slogan would be “Our candidate is not as bad as the other”?
On the world front, China is building islands out into a sea and threatening its neighbors, most of whom are our committed allies. Putin seems intent upon taking us back to the Cold War. And does anybody understand the leader of North Korea? Toss in a persistent terrorist threat, some foreign and some domestic, and do we really think our lives are that much better than the intended congregation of the Letter to the Hebrews?
In spite of all that is happening around them, the author of the letter encourages the congregation to continue to show love to one another, to show hospitality to strangers, to help and pray for those in prison, to support those being tortured, to hold marriage in honor and keep the marriage bed undefiled, to love God rather than money, to be content with what they have, and to stay confident in God’s love for them and promises to them. You can probably imagine me exhorting you in the same way. Heck, some of you have probably heard similar advice in our pastoral conversations.
On the one hand, such exhortations make sense. Some of those imprisoned were their brothers and sisters, whose only crime was being discovered to be Christian. It would make sense that the author would want them visiting with one another. The extolling of marriage also makes sense, right? God has compared His relationship with Israel to be like a marriage, with Israel being the adulterer who chases after every false god. Now the Church has become the new Israel. It makes sense that the author would remind us, married Christians, that we need to live a married life reflective of the Covenant to which we have all been called. But our lectionary editors excised the why. Why do we do these things? Why are they important to God? What purpose do they really serve? And, I would argue for a while, the skipped passage speaks to our identity as Christians of an Anglican/Episcopalian flavor. Hence our stroll down sacramental theology this morning . . .
Listen to the verses skipped. You can go and read them later and drop by during the week to talk more. 9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. 10 We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Those in Bible studies around here, and those in other conversations, have heard me speaking of the Temple and Tabernacle pointing to the heavenly reality. In fact, in our Hebrews class we have spent some significant time looking at the imagery and meaning. It makes sense in that class, right? The author is clearly concerned with worship as a type and shadow of the life that is to come. After the exhortations to do the good things, the author pauses and reminds us not to be carried away by strange teachings. In fact, in a verse that no doubt warmed the heart of Martin Luther, the author reminds us it is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace rather than ceremonial foods.
What is being described is the way you and I believe we are supposed to worship. I say you and I believe because you and I have chosen to worship God in this particular denomination. Our worship is divided into two major parts, and not by accident. Some churches do a wonderful job of preaching. Other churches focus on the Eucharist. Many churches are legalistic, in the sense that they forget our hearts are to be strengthened by grace and not by the doing of good things and avoidance of bad things. Our forebears focused on the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament because they thought it captured the intent of God.
Why do we gather to worship? First and foremost, it should be because we are joyfully thankful for the saving work He has accomplished on our behalf in Christ Jesus. Every time we Anglicans/Episcopalians gather for the Eucharist, we remind ourselves of His death, His Resurrection, and His promise that He will return. Right? I see the nods. Yes, you say a variant of those words during the service. We gather her to remind ourselves of what God has done. In the liturgy of the Word, we go deeper, right? We read about the matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith. We read about and consider stories of those who have come before. Some are meant to encourage us. Some are meant to remind us that we can mourn or lament that things are not as they were supposed to be. Some are read to warn us. All are meant, though, to point us to Christ. If everything in the Old Testament, the psalms, the torah, and the prophets spoke about or to His coming, as He asserted that they did, all those readings, and all our preaching, ought to be pointing us to Christ. In some cases, we might be reminded that we have access to incredible power by virtue of our inheritance. We can lay hands, we can pray, and we can expect God to act in accordance with His revealed nature. He may not act the way we want, but we know He will act. In other cases, we may be reminded that we have an incarnational share in Christ’s ministry. Sometimes, God redeems our suffering for the benefit of others. And so we gather to remind ourselves that, no matter our condition, no matter the evil arrayed against us, no matter the seeming insignificance of our labors, our Lord will be victorious and we will share in His eternal kingdom for ever! Sacramentally speaking, the new temple is our hearts, right? Where is Christ’s blood carried as a sin offering? What place is purged of sin by His atoning work? Our hearts.
But we are not done with worship! No matter how encouraged we are, no matter how warmed our heart is, we are still not done! Proper worship involves more than just sitting here in the sanctuary listening to a preacher drone on, praying on behalf of ourselves and others, asking for forgiveness for our most recent sins, and snacking on some wafers and wine! The author of the letter to the Hebrews is speaking to the Day of Atonement in the life of Israel. One day a year, the High Priest carried the blood of the sin sacrifice for the people into the Holy of Holies to whip the blood at the sacred container of the Ark and at the mercy seat. It was the only day of the year that they were allowed to glance into the Holy of Holies. When finished, the High Priest would open the curtain and the doors so that everyone could peer in and know that their sins had been atoned for by the blood of the sin offering. What happened to the flesh of the sin offering?
In verse 11, the author reminds us. The bodies were taken outside the camp in the days of the Tabernacle and taken outside the Temple in the days of the Temple and burned. The author then ties that action to the death of Christ. If you and I were planning to kill a Messiah to save us, where would we likely have that execution occur? In the Temple? Among us? Jesus, though, suffered and died outside the camp, outside the Temple, out among the Roman camp, out in the wilderness. Hmm. He died on a cross, reminding us that he was accursed by God, and He died apart from God’s people. And you and I are told by Him to, what is it again, oh, yeah, pick up our cross and follow Him. What do you suppose He meant by that? We cannot die for others to atone for their sins because we are sinners, too. We can, however, die to selves and serve them, as Christ first serve us.
I wish I had my phone out for some of your faces. That’s right. We do not serve others because we get brownie points or earn salvation—the latter is accomplished only through God’s grace and Christ’s work on our behalf. We do not serve others because it makes us feel good about ourselves, though some experience that as a side benefit. We serve others because it is part of our worship! We serve others out of thanksgiving and joy for what God has done for us in Christ! Where do we serve Him? Here, navel gazing and praising in this sanctuary? No, we serve Him outside the camp, outside these walls. We go out from the sacred space, dying to self, trusting that He will use our faithful obedience, as He has countless saints who have gone before us, for His redemptive purposes. Why do you think we end our services here with the prayer “Send us out into the world to do the work You have given us to do”? Our ministries are every bit as much our worship as our songs of praise, as our wonderful liturgy, as our prayers of intercession, as our laments, and as our joyful thanksgiving. If we stay here within these walls, if we refuse to work outside the camp, our worship is not Christ-like. We are not bearing our crosses; we are not following Him.
In a few minutes, we are going to gather in the Parish Hall to celebrate what we call the ministry fair at Church of the Advent. There you will hear of opportunities to serve those outside this camp in the name of Christ. You will hear of amazing opportunities and oppressive evil. As those who share their ministries with you speak, you may begin to wonder why they even bother. There are so many homeless in the midst of Nashville, how can we expect to make a dent? There is so much hunger here in Nashville, of what value is the food you are willing to offer? There is so much medical need, so much poverty, so much anguish, what can we ever accomplish through our meager assistance to places like Siloam, our prayers, or our thankful giving? That voice, of course, is the voice of God’s Enemy. It is the voice that tries to seduce us into believing we have no role to play, that we are unloved, that our labors are in vain. Command that voice to get behind you in His name and prayerfully consider how God might be asking you to serve in His name. Is He asking you to get involved in one of those ministries? Are you at a point in life where all you really have is financial support of those ministries on your heart? All you can do is pray for protection or provision or discernment? Is there a ministry to which He is calling you that does not yet exist at Church of the Advent? The possibilities, my brothers and sisters, are endless, as endless as the grace and power and love which He has shown each one of us both outside the camp, and within the sanctuaries we have fashioned, and those Temples He has cleansed in our own hearts! It is that cleansed and redeemed Temple that He asks us to share with others in His name, bearing fruit of lips that confess His name and of hearts that are confident in those promises not yet seen, even as were our ancestors before us!