The Bible tells stories with words and symbols. This is especially true of the fundamental message of Jesus, which is depicted symbolically and in extended narrative during Holy Week.
- Some symbols of Palm Sunday
- Jesus’ fundamental teaching and the framing symbols of Holy Week
- What “obedience” meant to Jesus
- Unconscious and conscious sacrifices, and which ones God wants us to make
- Having the same mind as Christ and following him today
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Holy Week begins the longest section in each of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. From the beginning and throughout the week, the gospel writers use narrative and symbols to proclaim the good news of Christianity. It begins with Palm Sunday.
On this day, we commemorate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. The people lay branches and cloaks on the ground in continuity with scriptural precedent. (See 2 Kings 9:13 and Leviticus 23:40. Interestingly, the “waving of palm branches” isn’t part of the Gospel accounts. Mark and Matthew tell us the people spread branches on the ground with the cloaks. Luke says nothing about branches. John reports they are palm branches. Just thought you should know; our contemporary practice of waving palm fronds mimics Hollywood’s depictions of the event.)
The branches and cloaks are among the first of several symbols that serve to tell the story of Jesus’ last week. The week is framed by two symbols that reinforce Jesus’ fundamental message: these are the donkey and the cross.
One of Jesus’ foundational teachings was that if you want to gain your life, you must first lose it (see Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, Matthew 10:39, and John 12:25). Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey depicts this attitude at the beginning of Holy Week. It sets up the contrast between finding one’s life in this world verses losing it in this world and finding it in God. For while Jesus, the harbinger of the kingdom of heaven was riding in on a donkey, Pilate, the representative of the kingdom of earth, was riding in on a war horse.
The donkey is a sign of humility. In continuity with other scripture passages (Zechariah 9:9) it is also a sign of God’s promise, and thus of our hope. But in inaugurating Holy Week, it is ultimately a sign of Jesus’ obedience.
We don’t like that word, “obedience.” People talk about being obedient to earn a favor. In our culture, however, we prefer to earn things through hard work. Or people are obedient to avoid a punishment. To be punished is to lose control of oneself, and we don’t like that either. Jesus’ obedience, however, wasn’t to earn God’s favor or to avoid being punished. He was obedient out of love for God.
For Jesus, love for God leads to life, and love requires obedience, even unto death, even on the cross. Obedience even unto death evokes the image of sacrifice. But Jesus isn’t the only person to sacrifice himself. Each of us make sacrifices all the time, some are conscious, some are unconscious. Some common unconscious sacrifices include our families which we sacrifice to our careers (for example, missing the game to attend a meeting). Or our well-being physically, spiritually, socially, etc., to the pursuit of pleasure (for example, watching sports instead of playing them).
But some sacrifices are conscious, which means we choose them. These include sacrificing having desert in order to have better health. Or sacrificing a vacation for a staycation in order to get some household things done.
Generally speaking, it’s better to make sacrifices consciously than unconsciously. And Jesus taught that the best chosen, conscious sacrifice is based on love: love for God and love for others. This is the sacrifice Jesus chose. He sacrificed the admiration of the religious elites in order to heal the lepers. He sacrificed the power of the political players to serve the poor. He sacrificed a monastic life to relate to the masses. He sacrificed his life for the life of the world. Jesus taught sacrifice in words and symbol, especially during this Holy Week, first in the donkey, then at the cross.
And because life is found in losing it, because the kingdom of heaven is discovered in serving others, Paul urges that the same mind of Christ be in us, that we make sacrifices based on love of God and others. This is God’s will revealed in Christ’s obedience. Paul understood that Jesus’ obedience unto death led to his exaltation. The donkey leads to the cross, which leads to the empty tomb.
Finding one’s life by losing it, serving others, being obedient to God’s will even unto death may require our whole life. Chrissy is a grieving mother whose child died of an incurable medical condition when he was 34. They predicted this during Chrissy’s pregnancy, but she decided to have him anyway. She loved him his entire life, though it cost her dearly. He required near 24 hour a day supervision and care. Her marriage didn’t survive the challenge. She gave up her professorship at the college. Now in her seventies, alone, financially vulnerable, and full of grief, people question if it was worth it.
“On any given day I would have given my life for my son,” she says. “If I could have traded places with him, taken his condition and given him my health, I would have on the day he was born and every day since.
“In a way,” she continues, “You could say I have given my life for my son. The life I wanted I sacrificed for him. It wasn’t a split decision kind of sacrifice, like pushing him out of the way of a speeding car. But it was a sacrifice I chose every day, little by little, with no heroics and most people not noticing. It was a sacrifice I made out of love.”
Jesus was obedient out of love, even unto death on a cross. This is what God calls us to also, to lose our live with Christ in order to find them in God. Paul instructed the Philippians to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. In this Holy Week, here is one place we can start. Jesus asked his disciples to sit, watch, and pray with him when his obedience was most challenged. (See Matthew 26:36ff and Mark 14:32ff.) Take time this week to contemplate Jesus’ obedience, and ask him to lead you in the way of life, even life that comes out of death.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- What are some of the symbols in your life that tell your life’s story? How easy would it be to tell your story using more symbols and fewer words?
- Which kingdom do you find yourself participating in more often, Jesus’ or Pilate’s?
- When you think about your life with God, are you “obedient” because you want God’s favor, are avoiding God’s “wrath,” or because you love God?
- Which sacrifices that you’re making are conscious, that is, chosen? What are they based on? Are they expressions of love for God and neighbor, or do they express other priorities?
- Examine your life for the unconscious sacrifices you’re making. After you’ve brought them to consciousness, will you continue to make them?
- Beginning this week, will you dedicate time to sit, watch, and pray with Christ, in order that his mind may be reproduced in yours, his life replicated in yours?
Psalm 143 helps us balance our number one concerns as humans with God’s number one concern for us.
- How our drive to independence can stifle Christian faith
- Two liberating, if difficult, truths from Psalm 143
- Three ways we participate in our salvation
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Of all the mammals, human childhood dependence is longest. One of our primary responsibilities as parents is to wean children to independence. For society to function it depends on this. How many societal breakdowns occur because people still act like dependent children?
Well into adulthood, however, we continue to cultivate habits of independence which result in an aversion to any kind of dependence. This is why “interdependence”—the highest level of maturity according to Stephen R. Covey, is such an effort. It’s also why faith in God is such a challenge. It’s why Jesus says we must become like little children again if we want to experience the kingdom of heaven. And it’s why, if we live long enough, God in his grace does exactly this—returns us to a state of childhood dependence.
Lent is a time of reconnecting to our dependence, and Psalm 143 provides some guidance, both in these last few days of Lent but also into our post-Easter faith.
The first thing Psalm 143 does is reposition us as dependent beings. It asserts that our deliverance, hope, and salvation depend on God’s righteousness. Verse one says, “Hear my prayer, O LORD, give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness, answer me in your righteousness.” Compare that with Psalm 7:8 which says, “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.” I think Psalm 7 reflects a more human perspective than divine. The ultimate truth, though harder for us to accept, is represented by Psalm 143.
Verse two continues, “Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” This fundamental truth was so central to Paul’s Christianity that he quotes it in both Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16, “No one is righteous in God’s sight.” Our ultimate dependence on God is essential to our spiritual well-being. Because of the human drive to independence, it’s also easy for us to forget. I think this is the basis for the story of the Garden of Eden, of Jesus’ ministry, of the Reformations, and of our lives. All reorient us towards increasing our dependence upon God.
A second difficult but liberating truth from Psalm 143 is the acknowledgement that our lives are a constant struggle. It says, “The enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead.” I’ve never literally been pursued by such a mortal enemy—most of us have not. This makes it harder to understand verses like this which appear throughout the psalms. I think that’s why the psalms are mostly ambiguous about the identity of the “enemies.” They invite us to join our voices to themselves by supplying our own metaphorical enemies, whatever powers are presently seeking to destroy our relationship with God.
The liberating truth in all this is that if our deliverance based on God’s righteousness is true, then necessarily true is our need for deliverance. Because God has revealed himself as a savior, we no longer have to deny that we need a savior. Psalm 143 helps us name not only our dependence, but also the constant struggle that characterizes our lives.
But just because we need a savior and God fits the bill, it doesn’t mean God has left nothing for us to do. Psalm 143:8-10 give us three ways we participate in our salvation. Verse eight says, “Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.” The first way we participate in our salvation is by trust or submission. “In the morning” indicates that this is primary.
And what is more, this verse suggests that teaching follows trust, human commitment evokes divine guidance. It isn’t a conditional formula, as if God is withholding his guidance until we trust. But it does point to the progressive nature of faith that the more we have, the more we’re shown. I am reminded of Indian Jones’s “leap of faith.”
Second, Psalm 143:9 says, “Save me, O LORD, from my enemies; I have fled to you for refuge.” Another way we participate in our salvation is by seeking God deliberately. Because God is a savior and our lives are a constant struggle, we ought to constantly be vigilant for God’s presence and saving activity. It’s an attitude we cultivate until it is a habit—to look to God to work even and especially through our hardships. It’s like when it begins hailing on the highway; you begin to look for an overpass to park under. We can exercise this same vigilance for God in our lives.
Finally, Psalm 143:10 says, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.” This simple prayer is the essence of spiritual discernment through contemplation. It recognizes God and submits to God’s presence and guidance. It summarizes both God’s nature as divine and our nature as dependent. Contemplating God’s presence is as easy as sitting still and quieting the mind, or meditating on God’s mighty acts in the past, as verse five says.
You can reflect upon your own life to see God’s mighty acts. You can read the legends of the saints. You can read the scriptural testimonies. Two of the best places to meditate on God’s past deliverance are at the baptismal font and the Lord’s Table. There is rehearsed for us our struggle in life, our liberation in death, and our deliverance in resurrection.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection:
- In what ways are you dependence-averse? How easily do you ask for help? How quickly do you judge the failures of others?
- What is your reaction to the assertion that our salvation is dependent upon God’s righteousness and not our own? Would it bother you if someone less righteous than you experiences salvation?
- What are some of the “enemies” in your life right now? Have you accepted this struggle in prayer, trusting God to “deliver you from evil” as the Lord’s Prayer says?
- Read and reflect upon Psalm 143:8-10 and the three ways we can participate in our salvation. Have you ever discovered something about God only after trusting him? Is God the first place you go for refuge, or the last resort? How often do you simply rest in God’s presence, meditate on his redemptive work in the world, and give thanks?
Need a new way to read and understand the Bible? Try figuring out what the authors’ presumptions were, and what these presumptions imply today.
- Three presumptions the author of Ephesians 4 makes
- A fourth presumption that underlies and empowers the other three
- Why we need unity in the Body of Christ
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Sometime the biblical authors are clear about their presumptions, such as in Colossians 3:1 with the words, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” The chapter that follows is based on this presumption. In these cases, the flow of presumption to implication is obvious and easy to follow.
But sometimes we have to read between the lines to find the hidden implications following an author’s presumptions. For example, Ephesians 4:2-3 says, “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” What is the presumption here?
The presumption is that there is diversity in the church. The Latin word behind “congregation” (congregare) means to herd together. If you know anything about sheep, they wander; they each have different opinions. What this means for us in the church is that we should not expect to agree with everyone, or even like everyone, in the church. This was a very liberating lesson to me in seminary—I don’t have to be liked by or like everyone to be a pastor.
But while we don’t have to like everyone, Ephesians does say we must exercise humility, gentleness, patience, and love, and especially to work for unity. With the right presumption of diversity, we don’t have to be avoidant or anxious about not liking someone or about disagreements in the church.
A second presumption is included in verses 7, 11, and 16: “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, so that the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament, with each part working properly, promotes its growth, building itself up in love.”
The presumptions here are 1. Each one of us is important and 2. It takes work, together, to grow as a Christian. To borrow from another passage using the same body metaphor (1 Corinthians 12), some in the church are “hands,” others are “feet.” Some are “eyes” others are “ears.” Some members of the church are weak or strong, public or private. Some are ordained to “ordered ministry” in the Presbyterian church, others are “unordered” ministers. The point is each one of us is called to function in a ministry in the body of Christ. This is true in the worship of our lives from Monday to Saturday. But it’s especially true and obvious in worship on Sunday morning. The body of Christ is less when just one person is missing.
A third presumption comes with verses 15 and 13: “We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Here they are 1. There’s always room to grow and 2. God want to grow us. Remember Jesus’ famous depiction in John 15 of the vine and the branches? There he assures us that God delights in pruning us in order that we may grow and bear more fruit. This applies individually as we grow spiritually, or in our knowledge of the Bible or theology, or in our charitable giving. This is what Lent is about—growing spiritually through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, study, etc.
But it’s also true congregationally. We have room to grow, and God wants to grow us. As I look at our communion, I have to ask: who’s not at the table? How could our congregation better resemble the kingdom of heaven—because even though some folks are not yet at our table, they will be at God’s table? How could our congregation better resemble our town, the neighborhood the church building is located, the neighborhood where you commute from?
So far we’ve seen three presumptions from Ephesians 4: the diversity of the church, the giftedness of each member for ministry, and a presumption of growth both individually and as a church. Underlying all these presumptions is a fourth one from verses 4-5: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Here what we remember is that it all depends on the one foundation of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Diversity, giftedness, growth—all these come from God. God himself is diverse, being revealed as a trinity. God knows the vulnerability of living in community, where it’s possible not everyone will agree. God also is familiar with the differentiation that accompanies gifts. The Father created us, Jesus justifies us, and the Spirit sanctifies us. And God also grows. I think God grew when Jesus was incarnate and when he died. And God was pleased to grow by adding us, the church as the body of Christ, to himself in Jesus’ resurrection.
What this means is that today we can be diverse, use our gifts, and grow with confidence, without fear, because it all starts with God who is one. The unity we need in the body of Christ comes about through diversity, giftedness, and growth founded on God alone.
I remember serving a church where two members who had served communion for decades came to me. One was suffering from dementia and could no longer remember people’s names. The other had begun to exhibit the shaking effects of Parkinson’s disease. In both cases, as with others with mental illness or brain disorders, their bodies were not under the control of one mind. They were frustrated and distressed when they asked to be relieved of their joyful service at the Lord’s Table.
As heartbreaking as this reality is, another reality emerged based on the unity of the body of Christ, and that is that these faithful servants for so long are now being served by other faithful servants, exercising diversity, giftedness, and growth.
Each of us is important, each of us has a role to play, the strong serve the weak—all because God is one and we are Christ’s body.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- Using the metaphor of the body of Christ, what is your role in the church? How do you contribute to the diversity, giftedness, and growth of Christ’s body?
- Whom can you invite to worship to diversify the body, to bring their unique gifts, to grow the church?
- Be honest about whom you don’t like or agree with in the church. Do you avoid them? How can you be humble, gentle, patient, and loving towards them instead?
Think there are too many strikes against you spiritually, and that you’re about to be called “Out!”? You’re wrong; just ask this woman.
- The importance of keeping hydrated
- The woman who was spiritually dry
- How Jesus sees us
- Taking one more swing
- Questions for Discussion and Reflection
There are times when we’re very conscious of hydrating, like when we’re exercising. Think about the cyclists on the Tour de France, reaching out their hands and taking a cup of water as they peddle by. Or traveling in developing countries; we drink filtered water when it’s available because we don’t know if there will be any where we are in an hour.
Low-landers hiking in Colorado can avoid a headache if they drink more water. In the hospital, they’re either pouring water down your throat or denying you any at all. I’ve visited people who were begging for one more teaspoon of ice chips. When we are in physical distress, the need for water is obvious. That’s the case spiritually also.
One time early in his ministry Jesus was in Samaria, the region between Judea and Jerusalem, and Galilee where Jesus was from. The Samaritans were remnants of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was conquered by the Assyrians in 740 BC. Under occupation, they developed their own traditions: they had Mt. Gerizim vs. Mt. Zion, for example, and they recognized only the Pentateuch as authoritative. Despite being more conservative and traditional than their Southern Kingdom survivors, the Jews of Judea regarded Samaritans as inferior.
In Samaria, Jesus stopped at a well near the city of Shechem, where Joshua famously called the ancient Israelites to covenant with the LORD. There he met a Samaritan woman. She was drawing water alone at noon, which suggests that she was a very lonely person. She has lots of religious questions. She talks to Jesus about their ancestry in Jacob, Mt. Gerizim, and the Messiah. She has had a hard life: five husbands plus a man she’s not married to. She’s had five failures, or five disappointments, or five victimizations. Her soul needs hydrating.
The Samaritan Woman is the poster child for Psalm 63:1, “O God my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water,” or Psalm 42:1, “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”
John tells us that Jesus is “tired out by the journey.” He has just come from a time of baptizing many people. When he met this woman, the waters of baptism were on Jesus’ mind, and he was tired out. How many people had he met seeking repentance, redemption, and forgiveness? How many were looking for religious renewal? How many were people just trying something new, anything with promise? Jesus had eyes to see the Samaritan Woman’s dry spirit, and being at the well, he asks her for a drink.
The Samaritan Woman is somewhat taken aback, because she has two strikes against her: she’s a woman, and she’s a Samaritan. She also listens to Jesus literally, whereas he is speaking metaphorically. This happens a lot in the Gospel of John. Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again. He told the religious leaders that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. He told the crowds to destroy the Temple and he would rebuild it in three days. He told his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep. In each case, the audience took him literally.
What’s really happening is that Jesus takes the ingredients of our lives, and uses them to take us into a deeper encounter with God. He’s able to do this because we’re all spiritually thirsty—we need hydrating. In the middle of our lives is a well, in the driest desert, in the heat of the day, and Jesus is sitting there waiting for us to come. He wants to talk about it. He wants to satisfy our thirst.
To do that for the Samaritan Woman, Jesus asks about her husband. Here is her third strike, the one she hoped to keep secret. She was sure to be sent away a failure now, but instead of being called “Out!”, she was healed. John tells us that the woman leaves her water jar, goes into town, and brings back other thirsty souls.
It’s easy to take hydration for granted in ordinary life, when things are going well. It’s like forgetting to hydrate when you’re swimming just because you’re surrounded by water. It’s like forgetting to hydrate when you’re eating salty food and getting a headache as a result. When you’re training for a big event, they tell you to hydrate frequently because by the time you feel thirsty it’s too late; you’re already dehydrated.
It’s like that spiritually also. We need to hydrate frequently and regularly. If wait until we feel the need, we’ve waiting too long unnecessarily. Jesus is available all the time, waiting to hydrate our souls. The easiest way to take advantage of this is through prayer. We can go to Jesus who’s waiting at our well, even at the place where we go over and over to try to satisfy your thirst. He’s waiting to deliver us from a spirituality of trial and error in which we think, “Maybe this will work.” He wants to help us past—or better, through—all our religious questions and distractions.
All Jesus wants to do in your prayers is have a conversation about the ingredients of your life. We bring these to Jesus in prayer, and he turns them into metaphors of meaning. In prayer with Jesus, we find the spiritual interpretation of our lives.
We give you thanks Creator God for you are also creative. You hydrate this world through humidity and rain, through rivers and lakes, and through snow. Through the history of your people you have used water to cleanse the earth, you provided a path through water to liberate us from slavery, you provided water from the rock to hydrate us through the desert wilderness. For our souls you provided the law and the prophets, to guide us in the way that most pleased you.
Because we depart from this way so often, neglecting your Word and wandering from your will, you came to us in Jesus Christ. He turned water into wine, told the blind to wash in the ritual waters, and shared baptism with us that we may have life.
Jesus promised us streams of living waters that would well up in abundance and bring us eternal life. Send us your Spirit in fulfillment of this promise, that we may find refreshment at the well of your table. As your Word transformed Jacob’s well into a place of divine encounter, so send your Spirit that we may encounter the risen Christ in the breaking of bread and the sharing of cup.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Has anyone ever made you feel religiously inferior? Perhaps you have been judged for not knowing your Bible better, or for just being a person of faith. How does it make you feel that Jesus doesn’t judge the Samaritan Woman? Do you think Jesus judges you?
- How often do you reflect upon the waters of baptism as a source of spiritual hydration? How do these waters address the spiritually dry places in your life?
- What are the “ingredients of your life” that you take literally, but that Jesus can use metaphorically to take you deeper into God?
Worship is kind of like carrying a copy of your passport when traveling in foreign countries. It isn’t as effective as the real thing, but it is effective at some things, and therefore still valuable.
- Though worship practices change, these principles don’t
- How Jesus operates on two levels
- Covenantal relationships, death, and sacrifice
- What Jesus’ death means for us today
I find it helpful to break Hebrews 9 down into four sections. In the first section, we gain some insight in to the nature of worship. Hebrews 9:1-10 outlines some of the liturgical practices of ancient Israel. It depicts the worship in the Tabernacle or Tent, the pre-cursor and prototype of the Temple.
It describes how the lampstand, table, bread of presence are in the Holy Place; how the ark of the covenant with manna, Aaron’s budding staff, tablets of the covenant are in the Most Holy Place. Hebrews 9:5 says, “Of these things we cannot speak now in detail,” but there are a few things to note.
In worship, the details change, but some underlying principles don’t. These include
- The covenantal relationship between God and humans. Covenantal relationships are based on promises made between two parties. Baptism and marriage are primary examples.
- Preparation, intention, placement, and sequence all matter in worship. So we begin, for example, with a call to worship, a hymn of praise, and a rite of reconciliation. This sequence helps us transition from ordinary life to worship.
- Memorabilia help us to remember our history with God and testify of God’s relationship with those in the past. These make present for us this same history, relationship, and God. Today we call them sacraments.
- People are called to particular roles and leadership opportunities in worship. We recognize these vocations officially with titles like Minister of Word and Sacrament, but in fact everyone has a part to play.
- Ritual acts are meaningful, especially sacrifices. In some cases, ritual sacrifice reminds us that sin has consequences. In others, sacrifice expresses our gratitude for something God has done or provided.
- This passage reminds us that ultimately, all worship is provisional. It is real, but a foretaste of something greater. It’s more than this, but it’s a little like a band practicing for a concert; they’re really making music, performing, and enjoying it, but it isn’t concert quality yet.
The second section is Hebrews 9:11-14. Here we learn that in worship, Jesus Christ operates at both levels: provisional and actual, foretaste and final. This because, “When Christ came … as high priest … he went through the greater and more perfect tent not made of this creation … and he entered with his own blood.” (Verses 11-12)
We might think of worship at one level as functioning like a ferryboat that carries cars across a river. It gets the job done, but it isn’t a part of either side, nor is it a part of either highway. What Christ does is provide an actual bridge which connects both sides and is actually a part of the highway. The ferryboat suggests this; the bridge is the fulfillment of it. This is what the creeds and confessions are trying to get at by identifying Christ as “fully God and fully human.”
In terms of Hebrews 9, animal sacrifices purified the flesh. These are the ferryboats, getting the job done but suggesting a better way. Christ’s death purifies both flesh and conscience: verse fourteen says “how much more will Christ purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God?” These “dead works” do not refer to former worship, as if Christian worship nullifies Jewish worship. Instead, this refers to our sinful nature, to our natural state, to our “flesh” as Paul likes to call it, in which everything we do is destined to ultimate destruction. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, Hebrews is saying, what we do in this life actually matters.
The third section is Hebrews 9:15-22, which in Greek uses the same word which is translated “covenant” and “will” in our English Bibles. We know that wills only take effect after death. Occasionally we get letters from our lawyer indicating that someone’s will has been fully executed and whatever their desires were to donate to the church have been fulfilled. This only happens, of course, after the member has died. This is why the request of the younger son in Jesus’ parable is so astonishing. By requesting hs share of the estate before his father’s death, he is basically saying he wish his father was dead already.
By the example of the will, Hebrews is teaching us that there are no covenants without death. In the covenant of baptism, what dies is my human autonomy. I am baptized into the community of the Body of Christ. Divine autonomy also dies in baptism, as Jesus reveals that God is unwilling to be God without us. In marriage, my single life dies. In my neighborhood covenant, my frontier existence dies—I can’t paint my house whatever color I want, it has to be within the palate of the covenant. In church membership, what dies is my self-determined spirituality; there is no “spiritual but not religious” in Christianity. You’re either part of the Body of Christ or you are not. Remember what baptism does above.
With this death-requirement as part of the covenant, Hebrews addresses the forgiveness of sin. Forgiveness of sin is also a necessary part of our covenant with God—for us to relate to God, sin needs to be dealt with. It isn’t so much that God’s justice needs to be satisfied (something the church has taught for a long time). It’s more that we need help dealing with our shame. Remember that in Genesis 3, God hasn’t come looking for humanity with a rod and chains. God comes calling out our name. It is we who are hiding in our shame.
Jesus’ death assures us of God’s forgiveness, of God’s enduring love, of God’s benevolence towards us. The Heidelberg Catechism question two asks, “How do you know the comfort offered in Jesus Christ?” The answer is, “I know my sin and misery, that God has set me free from it, and that I can live in gratitude for such deliverance.”
The final section is Hebrews 9:23-28, in which we learn that, “Christ did not enter the mere copy of the sanctuary, but heaven itself.” We are also reminded that “it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that to face judgment.” There is a parallel here that Hebrews is making. Just as our death is final, so Christ’s death is final. And his death represents the final sacrifice. Christ’s covenantal sacrifice is final, true, eternal, and perfect. So Hebrews teaches that, “Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Jesus’ death assures us of forgiveness, not at the end of our lives, not in the judgment, but now, in this life. He returns not to “deal with sin,” since that is done in his death, but rather to greet those who are “eagerly waiting for him.” Jesus’ death dealt with sin and assures us of forgiveness now. Jesus’ resurrection assures us of the meaning of our lives and anchors our hope. We live today, and hope for tomorrow.
After all this, Hebrews assures us of a salvation or deliverance through whatever judgment may await us after we die. But think about this: What better way to avoid or survive judgment after death, than to live today in the assurance of forgiveness, in the hope of Christ’s return, and in the enjoyment of our relationship with God—now, in this life, today?
What if there really is no more need of trying to make up for our sins? What if we lived no more with the fear that our lives ultimately have no purpose? What if we stopped denying God, running from God, doubting God, or fighting God because instead we were enjoying God today in this life?
We call this “living in grace.” It’s where Lent leads us, because it’s where Christ leads us. Imagine what the world would be like.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What are some things about worship that you truly appreciate today? How do these things lift you “up” into heaven? Are there some things about worship in the past that you miss? Does it give you some comfort to realize that all worship is provisional?
- Think about your church’s worship service. How do the activities, words, rituals, songs, etc., all take on new meaning in light of the fact that in Jesus Christ these things are “bridged” to God’s presence in heaven? Does the bread and wine of communion take on greater significance? Do the prayers have deeper meaning?
- How does the understanding of Jesus’ death as assurance of God’s forgiveness, rather than satisfaction of God’s wrath, change the way you see God, worship, yourself?
- The sermon ends with a bunch of questions about how we might live if we believed in forgiveness now, eagerly waited for Christ’s return, and enjoyed God’s presence in this life. How did you answer those?
There are lots of ways to describe the experience we humans have: a brokenness to be fixed, a restlessness to be pacified, a longing to be satisfied. In biblical language, it’s “sin;” and in Christianity, Jesus is the solution.
- How we got into this mess
- Paul’s Christian interpretation
- God’s design even before the “Fall”
- How Jesus’ three temptations lead us to salvation
- A prayer for Lent
- Questions for discussion and reflection
To discover how we humans go into the predicament of sin we have only to look at the first book of the Bible Genesis, literally the book of “beginnings.” There we are introduced to Adam and Eve, our primordial parents who are seduced by the snake. This seduction culminates in their death. This is why Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with the disposition of ashes and the words: “From dust you came, and shall return.”
From the beginning, the Bible has been candid about our human nature—we’re all going to die. In the meantime, we’re all dying. We die every time a dream is disappointed, every encounter of suffering, with every experience of emotional or spiritual or psychological pain. That’s our experience; that’s our predicament.
The New Testament author Paul offers a Christian interpretation of our predicament. He agrees that death—and dying—is the consequence of sin. He interprets “Adam” as a type, a foreshadow of Jesus. Paul’s view predicts the perspective found in the Heidelberg Catechism, that “God created human beings with the ability to live in right relationship with God (‘keep the law’). They, however, provoked by the devil, in willful disobedience, robbed themselves and all their descendants of these gifts.” (Heidelberg Catechism answer 9) In other words, both are to blame: the power of sin (personified by the “devil”) and human free will.
In Paul’s theology, Jesus’ resurrection reverses the consequence of sin, i.e., death and dying. And for Paul, baptism unites us with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6), and also with the Spirit that overcomes death (Romans 8). We therefore, on the basis of Christ, have hope beyond death and strength in our dying. Sin is overcome.
Paul’s interpretation addresses the concept of “sin” as we ordinarily think of it. Paul sees Christ solving the predicament of our struggle with sin. But even before the snake seduced Adam and Eve, God placed the forbidden tree right in the middle of the Garden of Eden. There, in the most convenient place, in a place they had to pass every day, grew a tree with beautiful fruit, and God didn’t allow them to eat from it.
Our fundamental experience of human longing precedes sin. It is by divine design that we have it. And the reason God places in the middle of our lives something we want but cannot have, is because God desires that our longing be satisfied in relationship with him.
The tree forces a choice upon us: either the Creator or creation; either God or something else. Sometimes we try to make this choice easier by distancing ourselves from it. I find it instructive that Eve adds a prohibition that God did not include, that they “not touch” the tree. This is what religion so often does. It intends to protect us by placing more restrictive prohibitions, but in fact this makes the choice not easier but harder, because it makes the forbidden fruit even more attractive.
In this situation of choosing between God and an increasing alluring option, we begin to doubt God’s goodness, providence, and wisdom. We become discontent with God. We begin looking for satisfaction outside of our relationship with God.
Which leads us to Jesus’ temptations. It’s important to note that no disciples were there. Jesus must have shared this part of his life with them. Why would he do that? To prove how great he is? After the whole story is told, we hardly need more evidence of his greatness. No, the reason he shared this with his disciples, and they with us, is because Jesus knew we are tempted in the same ways.
First, in the temptation to turn stones into bread, Jesus reminds us that nothing worldly apart from God’s Word can satisfy our hunger. We think if we just get the right job, find the right mate, live in the right place, become a parent, we’ll be satisfied. These are fine aspirations and they enhance our lives, but apart from God’s Word, they cannot satisfy our human longing.
The Lord’s Supper reminds us of this every week. Apart from God’s Word, all we have is ordinary bread and wine. But the Supper also invites us to a new perspective. With God’s Word all things—jobs, marriage, etc.—become extraordinary.
Second, in the temptation from the Temple height, Jesus reminds us that religion apart from justice does not makes us right with God (“righteous,” to use the biblical word). In fact, religion without justice actually hinders our relationship with God. Jesus said, “Woe to you, religious hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23) More concretely, James says, “Pure religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)
Here again, the Lord’s Supper is illustrative. At the Table we receive grace and forgiveness. We freely receive food that satisfies body and soul. But until we offer to others what we have received from God, our religious activity has not led to righteousness.
Third, in the temptation on the high mountain, Jesus reminds us that not even the whole world can fill our human emptiness. Most of us experience this temptation as wanting not the whole world, but just a little bit more of it—just a little newer car, just a little bigger house, just a little nicer wardrobe. What Jesus says is that the only satisfaction for our emptiness is not to try to fill it with the world, but to acknowledge it through worship, to confess our emptiness, to even empty ourselves intentionally in the context of worship so that God can fill us.
When we come to the Lord’s Supper, some of us have been fasting. We have made this part of our discipline. It reminds us that only God in Christ can truly satisfy our hunger, that only through Christ do we truly break our fast (“have breakfast”) and find satisfaction.
As we start our Lenten journey of following Jesus on the path of salvation, let us remember four things:
- We contend with a powerful force. Some of the biblical words for it are “sin,” the “devil,” “Satan”. Let us not underestimate our predicament, or overestimate our ability.
- We have been given a choice. God has designed our lives to present us with the choice to pursue God, and God has given us freedom to make that choice.
- We are not alone. We don’t face these choices, or the consequences of our choices, alone. In his temptation, Jesus is familiar with our struggle; and in his resurrection, God’s Spirit abides with us.
- No matter what the score, we are on the winning team. No matter how quickly or how often we choose something else instead of God, Jesus has still overcome death and dying, sin is still vanquished, and we are still on the winning team. Get up, dust off, and keep going.
Lord Jesus Christ, in your baptism you united yourself with our predicament. You know our weakness in the face of sin; you know our vulnerability to temptation. You yourself, after your baptism, faced our adversary, and overcame the same temptations which confront us daily. In the waters of baptism you claim us as your own, and we belong to you. We desire to follow you, but our desires are divided. In this season of Lent, help us to be your faithful disciples. Grant that we may overcome our temptations, that we may take up our own crosses and follow you, that in losing our lives to this world we may find them more fully in you. Bless us this Lent, as we read your Word and pray, as we not only fast but offer to you also the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith. “As you with Satan did contend and did the victory win, O give us strength to persevere, in you to conquer sin.” (Lord, Who throughout These Forty Days #166 in Glory to God).
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- In the garden that is your life, circumstantially around you, or personally within you, what tree of choice is in the center? Where is God asking you to make a choice between God and something else?
- How does Jesus’ victory of sin, death, and dying, and the union with him we have in baptism, equip and strengthen you for your own struggle with the power of sin?
- How does Jesus’ example in dealing with our temptations guide you in dealing with yours? What stones do you wish were bread? How is religion hindering righteousness? What little bit more of the world are you trying to use to fill your emptiness?
- In what ways does the Lord’s Supper speak God’s Word to you, remind you of Christ’s victory and his intercession for you, and strengthen you to walk in the garden of your own life?
The reason we have Transfiguration Sunday is to inspire us to follow Jesus into the season of Lent. But who is this Jesus we are to follow?
- The three heroes on the mountain
- In the presence of the holy
- Jesus above everything, even religion
- Following Jesus in Lent
- Questions for discussion and reflection
If you could select your heroes to meet with on a mountain, who would you choose? Some contenders for me: Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer. The list goes on.
For Peter, James, and John, the lineup included Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Moses: the one who had the showdown with Pharaoh, who spoke to God in the cloud and devouring fire, who sat with God face to face. He was the great lawgiver. And Elijah! He stood against Ahab and Jezebel, met God in the “still small voice,” and had that great showdown with the prophets of Baal.
What does it mean that Jesus would be joined by these heroes? Today’s Psalm adds Aaron and Samuel to the inner circle who talked to God in the cloud and on the mountain. Peter, James, and John must have been thinking of all these “greats:” Moses the Lawgiver, Aaron the Priest, Samuel the Judge, Elijah the Prophet, and Jesus the Christ.
When you’re in the company of greatness, there is gravitas, it is weighty, and it is holy. In religious circles, the mountain is a symbol of the habitation of the gods, of the divine presence, of the holy. We have two responses in the presence of the holy. On one hand, we have awe and inspiration. If you’re a musician in the presence of a great musician, for example, you just enjoy and dream.
The other response betrays a deep insecurity. And here, before the Lawgiver, we have to admit that we are lawbreakers. Before the great Prophet, we have to admit that our devotion is only halfhearted. And before the Christ, we have to admit that we are in need of a savior. So the mountain is a double-edged metaphor: it is majestic to us, representing our goals and achievements and aspirations. But to God is but a footstool.
When you’re in the presence of the holy, you are aware of two things: what you could be, and of what you aren’t. There’s a mixture of excitement and trepidation about what God is calling you to be. This is how you know you are on sacred ground.
All this is going on for Jesus’ three disciples, and then there is the voice which says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased.” There was a time when God was frustrated with Moses. God was also disappointed with Elijah. But with Jesus, all God has to say is that he is well-pleased. So the holiness on this mountain takes on something new; it takes on intimacy and delight.
But there is more: “Listen,” God says, “to him.” Over the Lawgiver, over the prophet, over the whole OT, over religion itself—listen to him. When Moses met with God, his face shone. But here Jesus’ whole body was shining, right through his clothes. What new brand of holiness is this? What kind of calling? Above Mosaic obedience to the law, above Elijah’s exuberant devotion to God, this is new, this is being God’s beloved, this is being God’s delight.
We balk under this new holiness. It is hard enough to obey the law. It is hard enough to keep up our exuberance. This new calling, a calling to follow Christ above Moses and Elijah, above law and prophets, above religion, is unsettling and disturbing. It’s an invitation that goes beyond evoking and inspiring us—it overwhelms us. It raises our doubts . . . and fears.
Peter, James, and John heard this and they fell to the ground and were overcome with fear. We despair, we fear, we make excuses, we run, we avoid, we bury ourselves deeper in religion because the relationship God wants with us is too much.
And then it happens. Just when we want to take refuge in the comfort of laws and prophets, in obedience and exuberance, all the showy stuff of religion in order to avoid actually relating to God, Jesus reaches out his hand and touches us. “Get up,” he says, “and do not be afraid.” And we lift up our eyes, and discover it is only him. Just Jesus. No Moses, no Elijah. No obedience, no exuberance. No religion, no show. Just Jesus, just the man, just like us, inviting us to follow him.
Lent is traditionally a time of preparation for baptism and for penitents to be restored to the church. Today it is a time of deep reflection on what it means to follow Jesus. Sometimes it gets buried in obedience and exuberance, in laws and prophecies. Today, Transfiguration Sunday, reminds us that on one hand that Jesus is above these things. But on the other hand, it reminds us that it’s just Jesus we’re to follow. We’re to follow him back down the mountain. Back into our ordinary lives.
Second Peter urges us to be attentive to this, as light shining in a dark place. Don’t pay attention, Peter says, and you’ll find yourself in the dark, lost, mindful that there once was a light, but now it’s out of sight. But pay attention, Peter says, and this light will begin to shine like the morning star and the dawning day in your heart.
Lent begins soon. It’s time to follow Jesus. It’s time to let the light of Epiphany shine ever brighter in our own lives. It’s time to come down from the mountain, and follow Jesus—only Jesus—to Jerusalem.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Think of the heroes of your faith journey. What would it mean if you put following Jesus even above these heroes? What does it mean to you to follow Jesus above religion?
- When have you been both inspired and fearful, both awestruck and intimidated? Do you recognize this as a holy place, as “sacred ground”? What is God calling you to in this place?
- Christian theology teaches that Jesus is both “fully divine and fully human.” Have you ever contemplated what it means to follow the “fully human” Christ, that Jesus is “just” a human like you? What impact would it have this Lent if you followed “just Jesus”?