A Sermon on Hebrews 10:11-25
Persecution is not new. It has been around for centuries – groups of people being tormented or killed for what they believe, or in the case of the IS terrorists, for what those people don’t believe. Our reading this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews was written for a persecuted community, a community being destabilized in its faith through fear. It is not really a letter. It is actually a sermon. Just listen to the opening lines: ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.’ It is expository writing, which is a fancy term meaning to inform or teach, and the author’s tool is a rhetorical device of comparison ‘if you think this was good, how much better is this’. Jesus used this technique also: ‘If you who are human fathers know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more does the Father in Heaven know to give good gifts to you.’ Hebrews is in the words of one commentator, ‘One long sustained argument.’
It is an argument for belief in Christ that unfolds in waves. Reading Hebrews is like standing on the beach right where you are ankle deep in water and watching the waves roll in. Some waves are bigger than others, and knock you off your feet. Other waves are smaller and more refreshing. The waves in Hebrews consist of rhetorical arguments showing that the angels are good, Jesus is better; Moses was a good leader, Jesus is better; Aaron was a good High Priest, Jesus is High Priest forever in the order of Melchizidek; Abraham was faithful, faith in Jesus is better; the first covenant was good, the second one is better – for it completes the first one; the tent (first temple) was good, but Jesus went to the real Temple in Heaven; the sacrifices of the priests are good, but Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect and complete.
Our reading today is one of those HUGE waves – the kind that knock you off your feet. The daily sacrifices made in the Temple for sins were useful, but the sacrifice of Christ is SO perfect, so complete, that it wipes out the need for a daily sacrifice: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” I love the crest of this wave: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds…. I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” NO MORE, No More, no more. Just let those words sound into eternity. Your lawless deeds are remembered no more. The wave continues with a word of encouragement, “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary…. and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith…Hold fast to your faith… do not waver… encourage one another to good deeds… and don’t forget to meet together.” Very encouraging words. Words to live by. Words that tell us the author was talking to a persecuted community of Jewish Christians.
Our liturgical reading stops there, which leaves you feeling quite uplifted, but this is Hebrews and you need to keep reading. The wave hits hard with a HUGE warning. The next verses emphasize that the sacrifice of Christ is such an extraordinary gift that continuing to purposefullly sin is simply unacceptable. That was exactly why the daily sacrifices were ineffective. They did not cause the people to change their ways. You knew that if you sinned you could simply take an offering to the Priest for sacrifice and the sin would be forgiven, but you could go out and sin again.
Christ’s sacrifice is so wonderful that it should be honored with a change of lifestyle on your part and mine. The words in these next verses are very strong. This is where all the hell-fire and damnation preaching of the Puritans came from: “For if we wilfully persist in sin after having received the knowlege of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” The section ends with the words: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Now this text is NOT talking about sinning out of ignorance. What do I mean by that? We have a limited knowledge base, and we certainly cannot see the future.
I was once at a panel discussion in college about making end of life decisions on behalf of others. The panel members were getting increasingly negative and depressed about whether someone would be held accountable by God for a decision that he or she took which ultimately led to the death of another person – like unplugging life support for someone who is in a coma. I kind of blew up like a small bomb because our God is not like that. He is not going to hold us accountable for taking a decision based on our limited knowledge. That is just splitting hairs. God made us. God knows that we cannot see the future nor always know exactly what is right in every situation. God will not hold us accountable for something we could NOT possibly have foreseen. Basically, the text here in Hebrews is saying, ‘Don’t take Christ’s sacrifice for granted. Don’t bite the eternal goodness of the Hand that has saved you in such an amazing way.’ Intentionally sinning is just beyond disgraceful in light of the sacrifice of THE High Priest who spilled his own blood. It is about respect.
But do we stop reading here? No! This is Hebrews, so keep reading, another wave is coming. The next words of encouragement are reminders of the joy we experienced when our faith was new: “But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings… for you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something that was better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward.” This wave of encouragement ends in the famous chapter on faith starting with the words, ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’
So what does the Letter to the Hebrews mean to us today? We are feeling collectively the effect of distant wars as their scared, scarred, and hungry land at our doorstep. Their fear is real. Their worries become our worries. Their trauma feeds our deepest fears. Their presence impacts our daily lives. Our boat is rocked. We hear and see the pain and death inflicted by terrorists in Paris, Beirut and Palestine. Our boat is rocked. We lose loved ones to disease, or our jobs to the greed and lies of corporate executives. Our boat is rocked. If your boat is rocking – and especially if your faith is rocking with it – get out of the boat and stand in the ocean of Hebrews. Let the waves of that ocean remind you of the one perfect sacrifice that defines you for all eternity. Do not give into fear, for we who have faith in Christ, have NOTHING to fear. We can stand solid – and more than that – we have the power to act, to love, to do good deeds, to encourage one another and to persevere. That is the message of Hebrews. Persevere in doing good. Do not grow weary. Do not lose heart. The perfect sacrifice was made already for you. Praise be to God. It is right to give Him thanks and praise. Amen.