+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
If it’s true – as I mentioned earlier in this series, and as I and many other interpreters of Hebrews believe – that this book of Scripture is more like a sermon than a letter, then the text before us this morning represents one of the threads of a sort of “sermon-within-a-sermon” woven into the central portion of Hebrews. We find ourselves in the middle of an extended riff on the theme we picked up last week – the identity of Jesus as our great high priest – and, to tell you the truth, this particular section can be pretty treacherous for us if we’re not careful.
The writer of Hebrews walks a tight line throughout the entire book, and everyone who reads it must walk the same line. On the one hand, a lot of ink is spent making the case for a continuity between the coming of Jesus and the experience of God’s chosen people in the centuries preceding his birth. With this emphasis, the arrival of Jesus is not a radical departure from God’s work throughout the centuries, but an extension of that work to a new people, a people who had previously not known God – namely, us, the nations, the Gentiles. On the other hand, as last week’s sermon made clear, the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus do represent something new and different and transformative. The ministry of Jesus before the Father is unlike the ministry of other priests because it was and is carried out by the Son of God, the Word who became flesh, who experienced humanity in all its glorious and gut-wrenching fullness, and who remained obedient to God’s will so that he might make a perfect offering for our sake and for the sake of the world.
What makes this tightrope walk so treacherous is what happens when we lose our balance in our attempt to more easily digest the relationship between the “Old Testament” or “First Covenant” and the “New Testament” or “New Covenant”. If we forget the roots of our faith in the First Covenant, we are in danger of committing one of the church’s most besetting and damaging sins – the sin of supercessionism, the idea that the coming of Jesus resulted in the negation of God’s promises to Israel. This idea has been echoed throughout the centuries by some of Christianity’s most important theologians, including Martin Luther, with devastating consequences for our Jewish brothers and sisters throughout the world and throughout history. By the same token, if we too easily collapse Judaism and Christianity into one another, we are in danger of practicing a faith that is a poorer, shallower version of both, and we weaken the strength of the appeal that the writer of Hebrews is making to us.
So, for example, if we read the first part of this morning’s text, the verses concerning “earthly worship”, and we see it as an indictment of the worship conducted by the people of Israel in the “tent” or “tabernacle” that they carried with them on their wilderness journey, we could easily assume that this section of the text doesn’t apply to us. That would be a mistake, for we Christians are just as likely to fall into the trap of focusing on externals and missing out on the encounter with God that is the intention of proper worship. When the writer of Hebrews says that his description of tabernacle worship is a symbol of the present time (Hebrews 9:9a, NRSV), he means to expand our vision and remind us that the limitations of earthly worship are not unique to the experience of people long ago or far away. Indeed, we face the same potential problem as the people of Israel did: allowing the trappings of worship to become ends in themselves.
At their best, the earthly sanctuaries we construct represent windows to the Divine. They contain symbols and signs that point beyond themselves to a reality beyond our reason and our senses. We could spend hours unpacking the images and objects that fill this holy space, drawing out their significance, revealing something of the nature of God or the content of the story that continues to unfold around us, but as the writer of Hebrews says in verse five of this morning’s reading, of these things we cannot speak now in detail. (Hebrews 9:5b, NRSV)
That’s because in the end our earthly worship is a mere reflection of the worship of heaven, led by our great high priest, who offered himself as a perfect sacrifice to re-forge the connection between God and humanity that had been broken by our pride and arrogance and short-sightedness – in short, by the power of Sin that made us strangers to one another and to God. That reality is vital to our understanding of proper worship, because it is so different from the way that we so often speak about the experience of worship. In truth, what happens when we gather is not about us and what we offer to God as much as it is about what Christ offers to God on our behalf and what we receive from God for the sake of Christ: grace, mercy, forgiveness, strength, and renewed life. Hebrews provides us with a stark picture of this reality through the language of sacrifice and blood, language that may sound strange to our ears but which captures the cost that God has incurred in pursuit of a wayward people who still think that we can make ourselves holy by what we do and say.
Brothers and sisters, the writer of Hebrews has given us a word that we sorely need to hear today. May this passage remind us of the gratitude we owe to Christ, who has opened the heavenly sanctuary so that our earthly worship might reach the ears of our mighty God. May we continue to offer our praises to God, not to earn favor with our creator, but to express our thanks for the ministry of Christ to us and for us, a ministry that cost us his life and made new life possible for all who call upon him. Finally, may we strive to be humble as we reflect on our own worship, and celebrate with thanks all those who glorify the living God with their lips and their lives. Amen.