Week 3: “A Better Way”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen; Wednesday, 6 March 2013; texts: Hebrews 4:14 – 5:3, 7-10; 10:19-25; John 14:6-13
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
At the Adult Forum last Sunday, Professor Earl Schwartz reminded us that the name for the Jewish people at the time of Moses and the Exodus, “Hebrews,” comes from a word common in the Ancient Near East, “habiru,” which was used by settled people, city people, to describe wandering, migrant, “passing through” people, people that also weren’t native. But what’s been sticking with me since Sunday is Prof. Schwartz’ assertion that the God of Israel was also “habiru,” a wandering, “passing through” God, with no boundaries to protect and no permanent home. This was a great gift to the Hebrews, it turns out. With no permanent temple (which came later during the monarchy), God could go with and be with the Hebrew people wherever they were. At Sinai, Moses was given instructions to create a tabernacle, a tent, which not only kept the Ark of the Covenant, but in its inner section was believed to be the place where heaven and earth came together, where the presence of God could be found.
However, though God went with them along the way, that inner sanctum of the tent of tabernacle was protected by a curtain which kept even the priests from entering. Only once a year would the high priest carry the blood of the sacrifice through the curtain and enter the Holy of Holies, the presence of God, for the atonement of the people, the forgiveness of their sins.
After the tabernacle, the Israelites built a temple modeled in the same way, with the same barrier curtain. And in this center section of this sermon to the Hebrews is an extended argument that while this access to God that the first Hebrews enjoyed and that the Israelites also knew in the Temple, was a good thing, a gracious thing, what Jesus has done for us is a better thing. A better way to God. The word sometimes translated “better” appears in Hebrews more times than in all the rest of the New Testament combined.
It’s worth saying again: Hebrews is not arguing that the old way, the old covenant is bad. In fact, core to this argument is that it was a good gift of God. But this is a better gift, a better covenant, a better high priest that we have. Because of who Jesus is and what Jesus does, he is for us the access to God that we never had before. In our pilgrimage of life, we don’t just have a God who wanders with us but stays in the tent. We actually can know and see and be blessed by the fullness of God in our journey.
So Hebrews tells us that we have in Jesus a better covenant, written on our hearts.
In the writing between what we heard read today, Hebrews quotes the familiar words of Jeremiah 31, words we hear each Reformation Day. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel.” And as we remember, this is a covenant where God’s laws will be written on our hearts, and we will be God’s people. And all will know the Lord, from the least to the greatest. And best of all, God promises to remember our sins no more.
The covenant made with Israel at Sinai, the old covenant, was their companion in their pilgrimage to the Promised Land. It was based on God’s saving of them from slavery, and upon their following God’s ways, God’s law. But as Jeremiah, now echoed by Hebrews reminds, the people broke this covenant.
For our journey of faith, we have a new covenant, based on God’s Word being implanted in our hearts and God’s forgiveness shaping our lives. And the mediator of this covenant, according to Hebrews, is what guarantees that this is a valid covenant.
But here’s the powerful insight as to that guarantee: Hebrews reads “covenant” to mean the same as “will,” because in Greek the legal sense of the word can mean both. In a will, you don’t get the inheritance until the person who made the will dies.
So for Hebrews, Jesus’ death becomes the guarantee of his promises, the shedding of blood which supersedes and ends all other sacrifice, the death which opens up the will. And that makes him a better high priest than any before him.
Jesus, in sacrificing himself as atonement for us and our sins, permanently opened the curtain to the presence of God. That’s the center of this whole book.
We don’t need to go into all the detail about the way high priests operated here, which the book of Hebrews does, but a simple summary might help.
Human high priests, as we heard in our reading today, made atonement once a year for the sins of the people and for their own. Each year this needed to be repeated, and each year a human being would enter the Holy of Holies and the presence of God to atone for the sins of all the people.
But Jesus, as the eternal Son of God, offered himself as the sacrifice, Hebrews argues, and opened for us a way through the curtain. And at his death, powerfully, the actual curtain before the Holy of Holies was torn in two.
Because he was and is human, he shared our weakness and could come before the throne as our High Priest. But because he was and is the Son of God, it is the Triune God who makes an offering, who is sacrificed, through the death of the Son. And this brings heaven and earth together in Jesus, instead of in a Holy of Holies.
The curtain between us and God is taken down because God became one of us and in dying and rising brought us into complete access to the throne of God’s grace, as Hebrews calls it. Because of Jesus, the Son, we can see the Father, and we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus we understand what Philip and Thomas do not yet understand in the reading from John 14, that if we’ve seen and know Jesus, we’ve seen and know God.
And this is our hope for our pilgrimage: we have access to the grace and presence of God constantly through the work and gift of the Son of God.
So we are exhorted by Hebrews “to approach the throne of grace with boldness.” That’s our gift and our possibility.
There is no curtain hanging in our chancel between us and the altar, with a space only reserved for a high priest to go, and then only once a year. We all come before the altar of God and are fed the body and blood of the Son of God.
That sacrificial language isn’t accidental: as often as we eat of this bread and drink from this cup, we say at the Eucharist, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We have access to the fullness of the Triune God in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
That’s why this covenant and this high priest are better for us, and for the world. There is no curtain anymore, in here, or anywhere in our lives.
And so Hebrews urges us to approach God’s throne of grace in several ways:
First, “with a true heart in full assurance of faith,” Hebrews says, because we now have access. We can trust fully that the Triune God wishes to be with us and hear us. And will receive us graciously. So we come with true hearts to see God, we don’t stay away.
Second, we approach “with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water,” Hebrews says. No more goats and sheep are sacrificed for their blood to be sprinkled on us and on all people to cleanse us. Our hearts have been sprinkled clean and our bodies washed with pure water of Baptism, a gift from the one whose death saved us all, and whose resurrection brings us and the world to life.
And last, Hebrews says, we approach the throne of grace “holding on to our confession of hope without wavering,” gathering together in the presence of God to encourage and support one another “as the Day approaches.” Hebrews urges that we cling to this confession of hope on our pilgrimage, and we do it together. We journey together as the Day of the Lord approaches, encouraging and supporting one another. And that we will focus on more next week.
We have heard from Hebrews that we are on a pilgrimage in life, and we follow a Guide, the Son of God.
This guide leads us through the wilderness of life on paths he’s already walked, and now we discover that he is the source of all our life and joy, the one who opens the way to God for us now and for all time, who makes a new covenant of life between us and God.
As a wandering people, there is no better news: the Triune God is wandering with us, and because of the grace of the Son, is present in our lives, our hearts, our community, our world, giving life and leading us on the way to the new creation that lies ahead.
Thanks be to God.
In the name of Jesus. Amen