Sermon texts: Mark 11:27-33 ; Hebrews 4:12-16
Last week I asked you whether worship here, like at other churches, is not as powerful as it could or should be. Now I really want to create channels for feedback on sermons and to prompt further discussion. One way to do that is through my blog, which we will link to the church website. Sermons are available there, and you can comment anonymously if you like. So I suggested last week that the path to experiencing the power of God in worship lies through honestly confessing our lack, and then, through fresh thinking about God’s relationship to us—the Gospel, essentially—and through opening ourselves to the many facets of God’s life by exploring the liturgical seasons in all their diversity. For the next six weeks until the year begins anew with Advent, we will go on a tour through the highlights of Christianity as it appears in the different liturgical seasons. I hope you will be surprised, at least now and then. Today we will begin with our foundation in Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, and having become our Mediator.
But first: during these six weeks and also beyond, I am going to do something mildly controversial. I am going to partially depart from the lectionary, that three-year schedule of bible readings that many churches follow. I like the lectionary and want to stick to it as best I can out of respect for our ecumenical ties.
But have you noticed that the lectionary skips things? Ever wonder why? I am a suspicious type and can’t help speculating. As it goes through Hebrews, the lectionary skips 5:11-14; otherwise it covers all of Hebrews from 3:7 up through 8. Here’s that skipped passage: “About this [Jesus and the Priesthood of Melchizedek] we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” Why do we skip this? Who made this choice for us? Should we skip it? Does this passage not apply to us? Are we ready for solid food? Are we mature in understanding the oracles of God? I wonder if the tone of this passage might put us off. Or maybe someone just worried that you might be offended by it, and the shrinking ranks of the church might lose one more.
The people behind the lectionary are probably just working the same way that most of people behind the scenes work today. They often have good intentions. But the choices they make are often constrained by their sense of what ‘the people’ want. That’s not the same as real people, you and I. It’s like when television producers of schlock say that they are just responding to the demands of the market, or when politicians say they are responsible to “their constituencies,” or to “working families.” Or like when CEOs and leaders of corporations say they are accountable to “the shareholders.” It’s kind of democratic, right? Leaders can’t just do whatever they want anymore; they are accountable. But we all know now that this form of leadership has its flaws. In fact, we are beginning to sour on our own system of “accountability,” even as it expands and solidifies its sway. Notice how popular it is today to opt for the ‘outsider’ candidate, even if he isn’t necessarily a ‘man of the people.’ So maybe the lectionary editors were too quick to worry that you wouldn’t want to be called “infants” rather than mature.
Am I accountable to you, in this way? Should I be gauging what I think you want to hear? Or do we need a “strong leader?” Someone who calls it like he sees it? Shoots from the hip (An incredibly violent image, if you think about it, especially in a time of errant police shootings.) The image in Heb 5 is of someone feeding a baby, which is much preferable. Do we need someone paternalistic or maternalistic? What is my authority with you?
Jesus’ authority in the synoptic gospels is left hanging in the air like a disturbing mystery. He asks, “Who do you say that I am?” In our first passage this morning, I take it that Jesus does not have authority like the way I have $50 in my wallet—true authority is not some power or possession that someone has. It is a relationship. The temple rulers are not in a real relationship with Jesus. He does not thus have no authority; it’s just impossible or pointless to say what it is.
I also don’t know what my authority is with you. Our relationship is just beginning. (I really don’t know what my authority is with my parents in the room. Not to mention my wife.) I suppose my authority lies somewhere between the Bible, the many larger traditions that have shaped us, my education, experience, and credentials, your respective experience and wisdom, and our budding love and fellowship. And all of this is fallible and redeemed only by the grace of God.
So I’m just going to start preaching the Word, although the skipped passage is right: Hebrews is “hard to explain.” But you’ve given me every indication that you are ready and willing to listen.
The Risen Christ, our Mediator.
We begin our tour of the church year with Easter: the reality of the Risen Christ. I am going to give you a plausible explanation of Hebrews, which is about how the risen Christ, having completed a sacrifice of atonement, is now our mediator. You might be among many who find this language confusing or even disturbing. And I might not be able to explain it effectively to you in four minutes. But I want you to see that it is possible to do. I want to build your trust and confidence in the Bible, which is inspired but not perfect, and in me—well educated, but definitely not perfect.
We read from chapter one in the call to worship: “in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High…”
Let’s go back a bit. At Mt. Sinai, God chose the nation Israel to embody holiness, perfection among the nations. Moses and great leaders like Deborah, Kings and prophets and priests mediated between God and the people, attempting to create a whole culture true to God’s highest standard. But along the way they despaired of ever truly living up to God’s holiness. In the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and later Isaiah, we see the Israelites wrestling with the problem of God’s holy justice: are we just too sinful to be acceptable? Or has God hidden himself from us, is that the problem? Or does God need to restart creation from scratch, to make the world more capable?
We too should consider God’s holiness, and tremble. Can we ever be truly perfect? The traditional Protestant answer is, let’s admit it, absurd: human beings are nothing but sinners, everything we do apart from grace is an abomination. That use of the doctrine of sin, “original sin,” simply served as a way for Christians to condemn everyone else to damnation, while leaving the way out open only to us—and we better do what the church says if we want to avoid hell ourselves. Christians have shown our own failure and our sin by this doctrine. Ours is the same sin that tempted our ancestors, the Israelites. We as they have used God’s gift of revealed presence as an pretext to hate the gentiles, the outsiders. Rather than see nothing but sin in others, we should simply admit that human beings on the whole are sometimes good, sometimes morally neutral, and sometimes vicious.
But we have been shown what perfection is by God, and when we try to accomplish it, we become acutely aware of our imperfection. Only those to whom God is revealed can know what sin is, and only we can bear the responsibility for it, because we sense the grandeur of righteousness, the holiness of love to which the human race is called. And so we should be acquainted with God’s word in the shape Hebrews describes it: “The word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit.” Only those of us who know God’s word see and are fully responsible for sin—our own and that of the whole world.
Chapter 2 describes how the sharp demand for justice and holiness by God makes us wonder how we can ever be whole and have any “rest,” as it puts it. Here Jesus is crucial. Jesus, though now Lord and ruler of all, shared in our sufferings: vs 14 ½ “He himself shared the same things [as us], so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death….Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”
OK: Jesus redeems human flesh—the goodness of the human individual—from the power of death. Let’s say that the power of death is the seeming insignificance of life on an ordinary human scale, of our lives, we who seem insignificant in the face of the grandeur and pomp of the powerful. Hebrews echoes the famous cry: What are we, that God is mindful of us? That is, what can we really accomplish in the world? What compared to the idolized heroes, the mighty armies, the corporations, the governments, some of which use literal death to punish and rule? The world tempts us to worship power with fear and awe and envy, to worship the human power to excel, to dominate; and so we seek power and glory, even if it’s a little put down of a rival; and we dread our death, because it marks the final limit of our accomplishments; death proves our insignificance. And so we are haunted by the power of death, which spurs us to grab for ourselves and yet robs us of all our achievements.
When was the last time our little church made the headlines? Which heads of state have visited here? Which celebrities? Has this church ever been “trending” on Twitter? How many hits has our website had? People constantly try to distinguish the somebodies from the nobodies, neither realizing that all fall short of God’s high calling to holy love, nor that all have been included in God’s reclaiming of humanity in Jesus.
This is “the power of death”—yes, of the devil. Enough of the devil as some horned fiend hating God and possessing Hilary Clinton, or whomever the Fundamentalist decides he doesn’t like at the moment. The devil is simply power for its own sake, in person. The devil is the power of death incarnate, subsuming our persons. Thus he is the anti-Christ: that is, humanity that has disdained our natural limitation and sought to become perverse gods by using power to dominate others. The New Testament generally believes that the world is under the power of the devil. We are living in Satan’s dominion. (How long has it been since someone said that from this pulpit?) We disdain our own humanity and that of our neighbor; thus we seek glory either by defeating our neighbor in some competition for greatness or even by taking pleasure in the humiliation of others (hello, reality TV). That’s why, curiously enough, we both love and hate our celebrities, love to see them fall or suffer a fashion disaster. None of us fully grasps the extent to which we are under this subtle dominion; we have been more deeply shaped by it in our innermost sense of identity and our longings and our self-loathing than we can ever know. It is why we are inclined, for instance, to work ourselves to death or to loathe our work, or both.
This dominion of the devil is outed by the cross, exposed. Jesus cast out the demons and the devil, while announcing a kingdom of an entirely different order; and thus he was put to death by a collaboration of Roman kings and priests and religious teachers. Only when we are shown a vision of what the Kingdom of God could look like, can we see just how far away we are from it, devilishly far. In this way, Jesus gives us a critical freedom from the world. We don’t need to make excuses for the way the world is, nor for ourselves. We can be honest about just how far the world, and we, are from our highest potential. And yet we hate disdain the world or become sour pessimists, for God made the world and in person, in Jesus, again declared it God’s own. That loving, unflinching honesty is something I find so exhilarating and liberating.
So why does Hebrews talk about Jesus as the true High Priest who by his death has made a sacrifice of atonement for our sins? Here is where many of my colleagues have a problem with the message of what some call “Divine child abuse,” and they no longer find it meaningful. But this is so essential to much of Christian tradition that we need to strive to find meaning in it—but cautiously, for the cross of Christ is the mystery of all mysteries. Briefly: a sacrifice of atonement is a gift that the ancient priests gave to God—they burned up a portion of meat to make amends to God for violating the holy codes—not necessarily for doing something sinful in our sense. A ram could substitute for my life: this testifies to God’s holiness, a violation of which could legitimately be thought to bear the penalty of death, while it also testifies to God’s mercy, which allows for a substitution. As Hebrews sees it—and there are other valid attempts to make sense of Jesus’ death in the Bible—Jesus is the High Priest and also the sacrifice. As such, Jesus shows forth God’s mercy on simple humanity—he identifies with us and affirms the goodness of being a person, even while he, in accepting death rather than using violent power, repudiates the satanic glorification of power which persons submit to. Even so, Jesus “learned obedience” in suffering and “became perfect”—that is, he demonstrates that even persons undergoing suffering, like us, can be fully obedient to God. This, our flesh, is good and capable, even though vulnerable. In these linked ways, Jesus fulfills and redefines our humanity; thus he is our mediator.
But most mysteriously, Jesus’ death on a cross, while also a Roman crime against humanity, is a sacrifice that honors the unquenchable holiness of God. Here God takes responsibility for paying this penalty; only God can fulfill and set aside this absolute demand for perfection, even if somehow it brings pain and loss upon God’s own person. On the cross God displays and sets aside the demand for divine holiness, and then, taking responsibility also for rescuing Jesus from the grave, God makes that demand for holiness something we can live with, live into, as we become united with the living Christ. And so no one need ever suffer God’s punishment, so Hebrews 7 tells us, for Jesus’ sacrifice was “once for all.” Very mysterious indeed.
The language of Hebrews is strange and mythical. To put it all simply: to believe that God was in Jesus is to believe that God is merciful, but only despite the great faults of the world. So that when we set out to love the world, and ourselves, we at the same time make an honest and searching assessment of where we and the world have failed to measure up. In Christ’s cross and resurrection, God’s love and justice are one; so let love and justice be one in our Easter lives. Amen.