Nehemiah 8:1:3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Nehemiah 8:1:3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Amos 1 & 5
+ 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.
This past Sunday, Pastor Andrew announced that St. Paul’s will be making a change to our Sunday worship services, specifically regarding our use of Scripture in worship.
Most “mainline” Christian congregations in the United States have adopted a set of prescribed Scripture readings for Sunday mornings. The vast majority of those congregations have adopted the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of texts drawing each week from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Gospels, and other New Testament material each week. To achieve that goal, each Sunday has three appointed texts (along with a Psalm text chosen to respond to the first reading, which is generally from the Old Testament). These different readings sometimes connect thematically, but in many instances they don’t, and the result is that significant portions of the Scripture read in worship receives no comment during the weekly sermon.
In an effort to use Scripture differently and reacquaint people with the broad narrative sweep of the Scriptures, a group of scholars at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, have developed an alternative series of readings called the Narrative Lectionary. This lectionary allows congregations to focus on one primary preaching text each Sunday, and moves more or less sequentially through the Biblical narrative over the course of the nine-month “program year” (September through the Day of Pentecost, most often in May). During that time, the preaching texts are drawn from the following parts of Scripture:
September – Advent III: Old Testament
Advent IIII – Easter – Gospel
Easter II – Pentecost: Acts/New Testament Letters/Revelation
The Narrative Lectionary features a four-year cycle of texts, allowing each Gospel’s unique voice to heard throughout the year. This year we begin again with Year 1, and dwell with the Gospel of Matthew. During those weeks in which the primary preaching text is from somewhere other than Matthew, an accompanying reading from that gospel will be read to support (but not replace) the preaching text.
This will be a noticeable change in our worship services, but we hope that it will be a welcome change as well. The decision to move forward with this transition was made after conversation with the Worship and Music Committee and the Congregation Council. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact Pastor Andrew. We look forward to exploring God’s story together this year at St. Paul’s using the Narrative Lectionary, beginning this Sunday, September 7, when we reflect on the flood and the promise of God that follows.