What More Do We Need?
Reformation Sunday (O. T. 30); October 28, 2018
There is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual (for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God (Hebrews 7:18-19).
I don't know whether to be encouraged or discouraged by the reality that human beings haven't changed much in 2,000 years. When I introduced last Sunday's Scripture to you, I said that the writer was dealing with people who were getting bored with Jesus, and so some were looking into angels, others into the Law of Moses, and others into the old Temple priesthood. They all wanted to have a life in God, but they couldn't agree on where to find it.
We haven't changed much, have we? The fascination with angels came and went several years ago, but it surprised me when it was happening. As my friend Linde Grace used to say, "Why deal with the staff when you can go to the Boss?" But people were really into reading about angels and talking about angels and going to workshops to learn how to talk to your guardian angel… maybe some of you remember that. Anyway, it's nothing new; people were doing that two millennia ago.
Now, not many Christians are interested in reestablishing the Law of Moses, but there are plenty of Christians who think that the way to salvation is to obey the rules. The Bible says repeatedly that's wrong, but the Bible saying it doesn't persuade everyone. Rules are good and rules have their important function, but they aren't the way to salvation. Anyway, it's nothing new; two millennia ago a lot of people were more dedicated to the Ten Commandments than they were to Jesus and that's still true.
But let's talk about the priests, as it were: the people who lead us and how easily we can be distracted from Jesus by putting our focus in the wrong place. And then let's talk about how the Book of Hebrews wants us to deal with that problem. I don't really know what the people wanted, those to whom this book was written. The priesthood in Jerusalem was gone: the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans and there were no more sacrifices. They couldn't go back. Maybe they were being nostalgic; after all, things are never as good as they used to be, right?
So I don't know why the preacher had to argue so hard for Jesus over and above Temple priests two millennia ago, but I do know what the problem is now. And it's hard for me to talk about: because I'm part of the problem, because I'm sure to stumble in trying to talk about it, and I'm sure to say something wrong or even offensive, and I'm sure to be misunderstood. But I need to talk honestly about one of the problems in the Church, a problem that is not new, and what the writer of Hebrews wants us to do about it.
Many years ago, a member of a church I was serving asked me for my picture. She was going to paste it in the back of her Bible; she had pictures of all her pastors over the years pasted in the back of her Bible. That was unusual, but I thought it was rather sweet. I told a colleague about it, and he was startled: "Who does she think her Savior is?" Maybe he was right, but I still think it was rather sweet of her. And last April I told you about my reaction when I was a teenager and our wonderful pastor, Duncan MacPherson, retired and many of our members stopped attending worship. I asked my Mother, "Did God die?" When you and I become members of a church, we take vows in which we say, "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior," but the reality is that we very often don't act as though Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, but we look for other lords and other saviors.
There have always been people in the Church who are more dedicated to a pastor or other church leader than they are to Jesus Christ. I hope that I have not fostered that sort of dedication to me, but I probably have. There are members of this Church who have told us they are not participating in the Church because Sara is on sabbatical, and they won't be back until she is back. So be it.
We have citizens who are more dedicated to the President, or more dedicated to their opposition to the President, than they are dedicated to the well-being of the nation. We have sports fans who are more dedicated to a coach, or their hostility to a coach, than they are to a team. And there are Christians who are more dedicated to a pastor, or a television evangelist, or a particular way of doing church, than they are to Jesus Christ.
It shows up in other ways, too. People will come to worship and say they are looking to "get something out of it," because they haven't learned that we're not here to massage egos or to make people feel good; we are here to praise the living God, regardless of how we feel. To the one who wrote the anonymous note asking that we never sing more than four verses of a hymn, I want to ask, "How many verses does God deserve?" Because the hymn isn't for you or me; it's for God. And although I try hard to preach a good message, because you deserve a good message, I hope that isn't why you're here. I hope you're here to come to the living God.
The problem of putting our focus in the wrong places isn't a new problem; the writer of Hebrews was dealing with it 2,000 years ago. And he essentially asks: you look to angels and Moses and priests; why? You have Jesus Christ: what more do we need?
The writer has three pieces of advice for us. The first is to remember that Christ is eternal and nobody else is. There were, by Josephus' count, eighty-three High Priests from the time of Aaron to the time the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. Eighty-three High Priests (or more; that number sounds low to me), but only one Christ. Yes, Duncan MacPherson retired and, later, died, but God did not die. The lady who pasted my picture in her Bible put it there with pictures of all the other pastors she had had. She knew I was as temporary as the rest of them, but she wanted to remember me along with them. And someday I too will be dead. But Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and will never die again; he is always here, always present, always coming to us in the Scriptures and in our prayers and in the Bread and Wine. Christ is eternal; the rest of us are temporary.
The second is to keep focused on who Jesus Christ is and what he does. Christ gave sight to blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52 was the other reading for the day) and Christ fed thousands in the wilderness. Christ refused to destroy his enemies but allowed his enemies to destroy him, making possible his new and eternal life. And see what else the writer of Hebrews says about Christ: "holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens" (v. 26). Can you say that of any pastor? Of any television preacher? Our kindred in the Roman Catholic Church continue to struggle with the sins of some of their pastors; the reality is that all of us are sinners. Most of us have never done anything so directly abusive of our people as have those we've been hearing about recently, but all of us need to deal with our own sins, as the writer of Hebrews says. Jesus Christ does not have to deal with any sin except ours, and he deals with our sins by dying for them. Why give your allegiance to anyone less than Christ?
And finally, I need to back up a bit into something we did not read in order to say the thing I believe to be most important right here. A little earlier in the same argument, the writer of Hebrews was making a contrast between the Law that the Jewish priests served and the priesthood of Jesus Christ. He wrote that the new priesthood, the priesthood of Christ, does something that the old Law could not do. The old Law could not make people perfect, but then he changed focus by suggesting that perfection was not necessary. This is what he wrote:
There is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual (for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God (18-19).
What do we need? Do we need perfection? Do we need for you and me to always get it right? Christ offers something better than perfection: Christ offers hope, a better hope, through which we approach God.
Isn't that what we're in the Church for? To approach God? We can get distracted by angels or rules or pastors or other leaders; we can lose focus by wanting the music or preaching or program to suit our tastes, but aren't we all here because we want to know God? And Christ offers us that, offers us that in a way that no one else can: no pastor, no program, no television preacher, no best-selling author is going to open the way to God as Jesus Christ does.
And he does so by introducing a better hope. I was sharing with our Prayer-and-Share group this week something intensely personal: how discouraged I was feeling. And so they offered their prayers for me and for the Church. And this week the voice of God came through to me very clearly, through many avenues, that what I need is what you need: hope. Even more: we need to be a community of hope, in which we all share a common hope. In a week in which people are being targeted by pipe bombs because of their politics, in which we have seen our nation's most horrific act of anti-Semitic violence, and in which the Bible calls attention to our tendency to get distracted, we all need to remember the hope we have in Christ. Personally, I don't need "attaboys" so much as I need to know that you too hope in Christ. If you want to do something to encourage me, tell me about the hope you have in Christ. My hope? That Christ will forgive my sins, that Christ will lead his Church, and that Christ will make us worthy to stand before the throne of the living God.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master