Sermon for the 5the Sunday of Lent (Passion Sunday) - Hebrews 9:11-15
A couple of weeks ago I received a phone call from a woman who was looking for help in finding someone who could build her a home. I gave her a couple of recommendations and then the conversation took a strange turn. She asked me, “Pastor, what Bible version does your church use?”
I told her we had switched to the Christian Standard Bible a little over a year ago. That it was an ecumenical translation staffed by scholars from almost every denomination with the attempt to try and stay theologically neutral, and just have the Word speak in a way that was easy to hear, as easy as God’s Word is to hear sometimes.
She said, “Well, I use the King James only.”
She went on to tell me how horrible every other translation was. How certain verses are missing from the “real” Bible, and how the NIV, for instance, even has a verse that calls Satan, Lord. I had to ask her what verse that was because I had grown up with the NIV and had never read that verse before. She couldn’t. We talked about what verses may have been “changed” or removed. She gave me a list as though she were reading from a script.
I asked her one last question using her verbiage, “Tell me, how are you saved?”
She answered, “By Jesus of course. I believe in Jesus, and that he saved me.”
I turned things back to her concerns and had to say, “Well it seems that you actually are placing your trust in that Bible translation, rather than the Jesus it contains. You are more concerned about whether a 500 year old English translation is accurate or not, rather than whether on a hill outside Jerusalem, 2000 years ago, Jesus, the incarnate Word of God made flesh, died for you.”
That basically ended the conversation, but I was struck as I thought of that interaction and then had our texts come up for this Sunday. In talking with her, and looking at the world, I was reminded that we are a sacrificial people. We are a nation of priests. I mean that we live in a society that survives within a sacrificial system. A system of priests that are gatekeepers that you have to bring the right sacrifice to in order to be accepted, or to receive some sort of reconciliation.
That was what the system was set up for in Israel. Thank offerings to give thanks to God for that which he gives us. Sin offerings in which we atone for sins we may have committed. Sacrifices of purity. Having to be declared clean before you could enter back fully into the community. Huge portions of Leviticus and Numbers, the books in the Bible none of us like to read, are dedicated to the cleansing of the unclean. Ladies after childbirth, you would need to bring that sacrifice for cleanliness, because we all know giving birth is a messy business. Lepers, and those suffering from other diseases. Touching a dead body, or even being in the room where a dead body was present. That is actual where the ashes of the heifer comes in from this Hebrews reading. Coming out of Numbers 19 – The high priest would sacrifice a red cow, not eat any of it but burn it to ash and those ashes would be used in water as a sprinkling of cleansing upon the unclean.
Our sacrificial system can take on many different forms. In the real world I can think of things like job interviews. You are looking for a job, or raise, or change of scenery. You have to go before the priest – The HR department. You bring your little sacrifice of a resume, references, answers to their questions. All of it in hopes that you might gain entrance. Be accepted. But to have another show up with a better sacrifice, or better reputation.
We could talk about sports. Bring the work the sweat, the tears (you’re sacrifice) only to have the coach’s kid show up.
Talk about moving to a new community in hopes of joining that community. But you don’t have the name, the family, the time in service.
Think of the college admissions scandal right now. How did their sacrifice go, of trying to get their kids into the system, by circumventing the system?
Husbands. How many of you have fallen into the trap of actually answering the question – Honey, how do I look? Or, does this make me look fat? Your spouse is bringing her sacrifice. She desires acceptance and approval. To look good in front of her friends, or yours.
I could spend hours talking about the sacrifice of image. How we want to be portrayed. Social media. An online persona. Getting the right look. All of it tied to the priesthood of popularity. It’s the universe we have lived in forever. It’s where bullying comes from. Bullying being these self-declared priests who have decided that your sacrifice is the wrong sacrifice. Not a good sacrifice. And the church is not immune. One of the great struggles in the church is that we lose Jesus within the whole transactional, sacrificial system we set up to decide who can come and who can’t. Who is part and who isn’t. Allowing, quite often, church bullies to run the show so that the very sinners Christ came to save from our sacrificial system get barred from hearing about the sacrifice of Christ for them.
Part of this is because we like our Jesus to look a certain way. To dress him up a certain way. To make sure the supposed sacrifice we bring to God, or actually the sacrifice we bring to ourselves, looks the way we want it to, and so we decide that the way our Jesus is to be sung about, talked about, read about, or served is supposed to look this way. Sung only this way. Using only this idea. For the woman it had to come from the KJV.
The danger is that within this sacrificial system we create, whether in the church, or outside the church, everything becomes about the sacrifice rather than about Jesus. Everything becomes about what we think we need to do in our way, rather than realize that it will never suffice. Never cut the mustard. Never be true because the sacrifice, the ashes of the red heifer, become more important than the God we proclaim. The system we create becoming more important than the God for whom the system lives, and moves, and has its being.
The greatest sin in our society, even our church, isn’t racism, sexism, ageism, adultery, fornication, murder, lust, hate. Whatever. None of that. The greatest sin we have stems from self-ism. Where we are inherently turned in on ourselves and want the world, and the church to look like us. Sound like us. Live like us. Be us. Because we love us more than we love others. That is sin in its fullness. So, we decide on our sacrifices. Our sacrificial system, making it look a certain way. Demanding that certain sacrifice each day or week. And it better be what I want.
Well - Christ entered the most holy place once for all time, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, having obtained an eternal redemption. In Christ, gone are all our sacrifices. We can make demands of others, others can make demands of you, but in Jesus, all those sacrifices are gone. They are worthless. Whatever expectations we have of the system to fit us, to fit our needs, it is the work of Christ to come and actually steal your sacrifice. Putting himself always in the place of it. Because he knows that whatever we might think of what something looks like, he’s better. He’s necessary. He had to do it. He always has to do it. Because anything you bring or expect others to bring, will be stolen, because it is in Jesus that we have our identity. And he never looks like us. That is why he came. Which is probably why we feel uncomfortable if our Christian life doesn’t go the way we want it to, because being robbed from is never a fun experience, but in Jesus, a necessary one.
Regardless of our age, our gender, our education, our abilities, the work of Christ is always a work of bringing repentance to turn us away from ourselves, and towards him. To turn our eyes away from our own navels, and to look to his wounds, his cross, his life for you, and however that may be brought to us, either here, or out there.
I wrote in our newsletter this month about the reality of worship in our churches being a foretaste of the feast to come. Of being an ingathering of all the people that make us uncomfortable, but we get the chance to be comforted in that through Jesus. This is what I wrote talking about Holy Week and our joint services coming up - Look around the room. Find the faces of those you don’t know. Realize that in eternity this will be our life. We will join with our brothers and sisters from every tongue and nation to feast and proclaim the greatness of the Lord as one voice. No more boundaries. No more barriers. No more categories. For us in Heartland Parish, our Holy Week becomes the very imprint of the reality of life eternal. Gathering not for our own sake but gathered in by Christ for the sake of our common salvation.
Each Sunday, we sing the story. Regardless of the tune or the translation, we sing of God’s mercy, sing the hymns, sing about the triumphal entry of Christ into our midst to destroy the system we create to make God look like us rather than us become like Christ. I pray that God would steal our sacrifices. That Jesus would become both sacrifice and altar. Both Priest and King. That he might do this work in order to kill those parts of us that make us get in the way of the true reality of Jesus here, now, for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.