"Since we… Let us…"
Pentecost XXVI (O. T. 33); November 18, 2018
One sermon that I heard as a young adult still sticks in my head because it annoyed me so much. It consisted of about twenty minutes of "We must" statements. That was forty years ago, so I don't remember what any of them were, but I just remember our Pastor saying "We must" do this and "We must" do that and "We must" do the next thing. It reminds me of a certain individual who begins wagging the finger at me and saying, "You have to…" and I want to reply, "No, I don't have to. You want me to, but I don't have to."
It's a little softer in this reading, but the repetitive call "Let us" is on the verge of annoying me. There are two things that save it for me: one is that every "Let us" is a response to the work of God. The work of God is primary: God does this, so let us do that. And the second is something I wish I had noticed, but I'm glad someone pointed it out to me (many commentators did). There are three "Let us" statements, and the first is about faith, the second is about hope, and the third is about love. Faith, hope, and love: these three.
But let's start by talking about the work of God. "Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)..." When the people of God were making their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, God instructed them to build a place for prayer and for offering sacrifices. This place was called a "tabernacle," which is a fancy way of saying "tent," because it was made of fabric and was designed to be portable. There's an interesting reproduction of it near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at the Mennonite Information Center. Anyway, the Tabernacle had various sections, and the heart of it was a curtained off area called the "Holy of Holies." The Ark of the Covenant – the box that had the Ten Commandments in it, the one that Indiana Jones went raiding (that movie came out in 1981 – 37 years ago; imagine!) – was in the Holy of Holies. Nobody went in, except the High Priest, and he went in once a year: on the Day of Atonement. And there was a heavy curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the chamber outside it.
When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, he followed the same plan. When Zerubbabel built the Second Temple (after the destruction of the first one) and when Herod the Great expanded it, there was still the same plan. There was a Holy of Holies that was the heart of the Temple, and only the High Priest went in and only once a year. There was a heavy curtain that separated it from the outer chamber, a curtain that blocked the way to God, you could say.
At the moment Jesus died, that curtain tore from top to bottom (Mark 15:38). Jesus offered his life, shed his blood, gave up his spirit on the Cross and that sacrifice opened the way to God. Because Jesus offered his own flesh for the life of the world, the new and living way to God has been opened through the curtain that used to separate people from God. The High Priest could go in to make atonement for sins; the blood of Jesus has washed away our sins and so each of us can go in to God, unburdened by our sin.
Now, the High Priest had several functions. One of them was to make atonement for the people's sins once a year. He would, no doubt, also perform other sacrifices from time to time for sin and for thanksgiving and for holy occasions, but most of those duties were handled by other priests on the staff. The High Priest also was the administrator of the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple, the head of staff, as it were, and moderator of the session. And the High Priest prayed for the people. The High Priest stood before God for the sake of the people, asking God to intervene for their well-being, asking God to lead God's people.
Jesus is the new High Priest: "since we have a great priest over the house of God…" it says. Jesus Christ crucified, raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, has entered the heavenly Holy of Holies with an offering of his own blood, blood that once for all makes atonement for sin. Nobody has to do it again; it doesn't have to happen every year, since it was not the blood of a sacrificial goat but the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus himself, pure and holy, that he carried to the heavenly altar. I should interrupt myself to remind you, as John Calvin reminds us, that this is an allegory so please don't take it to places it isn't supposed to go. Anyway, as I was saying: Christ has made atonement for us, one of the jobs of the High Priest. Also, Christ is the Administrator, the one who governs and directs His Church. And Christ prays for us; you can imagine the throne room of God, with three thrones. Christ is on the right, talking to God, interceding for his people: for us.
"Since we…" have this new and living way and "since we" have a great priest over the house of God, then "Let us…" do these three things.
Let us approach God with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Yes, I know, it doesn't say "God" but who else could it mean? Scott Frost? The curtain has been torn open, nothing stands between us and God, thanks to the flesh of Christ, so let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith. The first of those three "theological virtues," faith, hope, and love: faith, which we can also call "confidence" or "trust." In other words, your heart set on the confidence that God is ready to welcome you. You may remember the story of Esther, who was afraid to approach the throne of the Emperor because anyone who approached without being invited was subject to being put to death, unless he held out the golden scepter (Esther 4:11). There is no need for a golden scepter in the throne room of God; God is always happy to see you.
Then "Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering." This is a big order. Hope is precarious and it can take work to hold onto hope. Let me break this down for you a bit. The root idea of "confession" is "saying the same thing together" (Greek: homo-logia). For us to hold fast to the confession of our hope suggests the importance of encouraging each other. As I have told you more times than you may want to hear, I have been an active part of WW (formerly Weight Watchers) for about sixteen years. We get together weekly to share our stories, our successes, and our challenges. Also recipes and tips for dealing with late-night snacking! Anyway, one thing we do is give each other hope. "If I can do this, you can do this." "Although it never gets easy, it does get more manageable." You know the sort of thing. And in the last couple of years we developed our own social media network, available only to our members, and people are quick to offer each other hope. "You can do this." "You did that very well; see what you are capable of?"
In the Church of Jesus Christ, our confession of hope is solid and sure: "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness." Remember my question: What do you hope for in Christ? The confession of our hope is for the presence of God, the assurance of resurrection, and that "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well" (Julian of Norwich). Hold onto that hope. And let us hold onto it together. On days that you don't feel particularly hopeful, you need to know that you're not in this alone. We share our hope together, and on a day that you don't feel it, then be assured that one of your brothers or sisters here is feeling hopeful enough for both of you.
And to make sure that we remember why we hope, the writer adds, "for he who promised is faithful." Our hope does not depend so much on our own faith as it does on the faithfulness of God, God who has promised, "I will be your God and you will be my people," God who has promised new life in Christ, God who makes promises and keeps promises and so we dare to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.
Okay, one more thing. And I find this one amusing to the point of weirdness: "Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds." A lot I could do with words here, but the central idea is this: pay attention to each other and annoy each other as necessary so that you love God and love your neighbor. What the writer says here is a sobering reminder that one of our big problems is nothing new: "not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…" People sign up but don't show up: that's nothing new. They want to belong but not be a part of it: nothing new. There are reasons why people miss worship on particular Sundays, but the concern here is those who do so habitually. The only way we can be provoked to love and good deeds is by actually meeting together.
The minimum is Word and Sacrament every week on the Lord's Day. But really to be provoked to love and good deeds takes more, I think. People should be meeting together not only to listen to a sermon, sing hymns, and receive the Lord's Supper, but also to talk with each other about the message of the Bible, about your struggles with the Christian Faith, and what God is doing for you. Goodness, if I have learned that I could not maintain my weight loss without going every week to a WW workshop and sharing challenges, victories, and hope with other WW members, then I have certainly learned that is true for something more important and more eternal: the faith, hope, and love that bring me to God. To maintain a vital, growing Christian faith that provokes to love and good works requires meeting with other Christians, sharing challenges, victories, and hope with each other.
Since Christ has opened a new and living way and since we have a great priest over the household of God, let us approach with faith, hold fast to the confession of our hope, and consider each other in provoking love and good deeds. For the One who has promised is faithful.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master