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03.16.14 Where Lent Leads Us Hebrews 9:1-28

by on March 17, 2014

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.

Summary Points

  • 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.

Tabernacle Floorplan

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?

 

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