Sermon delivered on the second Sunday before Advent, November 15, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Daniel 12.1-3; Psalm 16.1-10; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this second Sunday before Advent (can you believe it is almost here??) we continue to celebrate the coming of the kingdom and Jesus’ rule over God’s world. But what kind of king is Jesus? We will look at this question in more detail next week. Right now, however, by any reasonable standard it is often hard for us to see God’s kingdom in our midst. Let’s face it. We tend to ignore Jesus’ encouragement to his disciples and us not to be alarmed over wars and rumors of wars because we are so used to hearing about them. The various media stream bad news into our lives on such a regular basis that we wonder where God is in it all and whether Jesus will ever really return to finish his victory over evil won on the cross. But we are people of hope and power and must resist this temptation to become cynical. Despite living in an evil age, we have places to go and things to do, and this is what I want us to look at today.
Before we look at the hope that is ours in Jesus, we need to be clear in our thinking about what exactly is wrong with God’s world and us. Of course, there is much beauty and goodness in God’s world. We see it, for example, in panoramic landscapes and in healthy relationships where two people love each other deeply. We instinctively recognize the beauty in these things because we are God’s image-bearers. And when we recognize real beauty, truth, and goodness, it has an edifying effect on us. But there are also things that are desperately wrong with God’s world: war, disease, natural disasters, birth defects, hatred, madness, addictions, suffering of all kinds, greed, envy, alienation, loneliness, and the like (cf. Galatians 5.19-22). These are the result of human rebellion against God’s good will and purposes for us. After all, God created us in his own image to rule his good world and reflect his glory out into it. But we humans didn’t get that memo. We wanted to play God instead of being his wise and obedient creatures, fantastic as that privilege is. And our rebellion brought about God’s curse and opened the door to all kinds of evil to deface and destroy God’s good creation and creatures.
And bad as that is, our rebellion also created in us a God sickness of sorts, where we are alienated from God and hostile toward him. We seek to pursue our own agendas, not God’s, and when we do this, we cut ourselves off from the very Source of life and health. Without an intimate and proper relationship with God, the kind God created us to have where we are his obedient creatures who rule in his stead, we can never enjoy real health. Our alienation creates in us a sin-sickness that permeates our mind, body, soul, and spirit. Sure, we may enjoy physical health, but we are really dead people walking when we are cut off from our Creator. We don’t like talking about this, of course, in part because we have convinced ourselves in all our modern and post-modern arrogance that we really have outgrown our need for God and can get along just fine by ourselves, thank you very much. And then we look around at our world with all of its alienation and discord and sickness, and if we are honest with ourselves, we know there is something desperately wrong with it and us.
What I have just described, of course, is life without Jesus, God become human, a life that at its heart is a delusion and a lie because it is a life in which we reject God’s sovereign love and good will for our lives. It is a grim picture indeed. But as all our lessons attest, it doesn’t have to be this way. God is much bigger than us and his love far surpasses our love, even for ourselves, let alone for God. The writer of Hebrews clearly believed this because over the last several weeks, he has been reminding us what God has done and is doing for us in Jesus. Today he gets to the heart of the matter. Are you tired of being alienated from God, he essentially asks us? Then listen up because here is what God has done to remedy that problem. God has become human and died on a cross for you. Unlike the priests at the temple—you know, the place where God’s people believed that God came to dwell with them—who must offer sacrifices continually because they are sin-stained themselves, Jesus, the sinless one, only had to sacrifice himself once for your sins.
Let me explain because a lot of this stuff is foreign to our ears and tends to make us whacko. For starters, we wonder what these sacrifices are all about. Are they to placate an angry and capricious God who is bent on punishing us for our sins and rebellion? Sadly, I think some, if not many, Christians actually believe this caricature of God. But that caricature is a lie. We must first and foremost remember that it was God who gave Moses the sacrificial system so that God’s sinful people could come into God’s presence in the tabernacle and later the temple. God in his perfect holiness cannot abide the presence of evil in any form and because we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23), we all carry vestiges of evil in us, some more than others. So how do we come into God’s presence (i.e., connect with God) if this is the case? If we cannot come into God’s presence and receive his forgiveness, how can we ever be reconciled to God and healed? The short answer is that we can’t.
But God knows this and so he gave Moses a way for God’s people to come into God’s presence and find forgiveness. That was the main function of priests among God’s people before Jesus arrived. The priest was to mediate between God and his people, offering sacrifices to atone for sins so that folks could come to the tabernacle and meet with God without fear of being killed. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us elsewhere, without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9.22; cf. Genesis 9.4-6, Leviticus 17.11), thus the need for animal sacrifices. But even then, folks were restricted to certain parts of the tabernacle/temple. For example, only the high priest could enter the holy of holies, the space where the ark of the covenant rested, and then only on certain occasions. And because priests had to account for their own sins, they had to make sacrifices daily to atone for those sins so that they and their people could enter into God’s presence and find forgiveness and healing. If we remember this, it is hard to understand why anyone would think of God as angry and capricious. If that were the case, why would God offer us a way to find healing and forgiveness or enter into his holy presence without fear of dying?
Now, says the writer of Hebrews, Jesus has offered himself once and for all for the forgiveness of sins, and to end our hostility and alienation from God. Jesus, the sinless one and the very embodiment of God, did this, not because God hates us and wants to punish or destroy us. Jesus did this so that in and through him we could enter into God’s presence without restrictions and without fear to find the healing and forgiveness we crave. Jesus’ work on our behalf is done. His atoning death does not need to be repeated. Ever. Because it is perfect. This is what the writer of Hebrews meant when he tells us that Jesus sat down at God’s right hand after his death. And as a result, our sins are covered and we are really and truly forgiven. It doesn’t matter how big our sins are. It doesn’t matter if we stumble on occasion as we all do. Our sins are forgiven and therefore no further sacrifice is needed. We are freed to love God as he originally created us to love him. This is why it is so important that we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus because he is the true and perfect image of the living God. Once again, as we think this through, it is impossible to conclude that God is an angry God or that God hates us. Why would he send his Son (i.e., why would God become human) to die for us so that we can be reconciled to him and be healed of our deadly sin-sickness that alienates us from God and ultimately kills us? And as we saw a couple of weeks ago, Jesus now actively intercedes for us to the Father. Why? Because God loves us and seeks to be reconciled to us, but on his terms, not ours.
Not only that, the writer of Hebrews also reminds us that in fulfillment of prophecy we are given God’s Spirit to help us respond to God in ways that are pleasing to God and consistent with God’s creative purposes for us. To be sure, we don’t get it right all the time. Some of us don’t get it right much of the time. But we are told not to fear because the blood of the Lamb shed for us is bigger than our foibles and flaws and sins, thanks be to God! Amen?
This means, of course, that we are people with places to go. And as our OT lesson reminds us, the place we are promised is God’s new creation where we will live in God’s direct presence because we are resurrection people. As we saw on All Saints’ Sunday, resurrection is not a concept, it is a person, and his name is Jesus. Because we are Jesus’ people, we too are called to share not only in his sufferings but in his resurrection. As we discover God’s healing love and forgiveness in the power of the Spirit, i.e., as we become new creations in the power of God’s love because we are reconciled to God through the blood of the Lamb shed for us, we develop a confidence that our lives are secure, both in this world and the next. Our end game is new life, new creation, eternal life with God, the Source and Author of all life. We can trust this promise because God has a track record that is trustworthy and true.
This is what Jesus was getting at in our gospel lesson. You are going to have to live in a world marred by sin and evil and it’s not going to be pretty. But take heart. I’ve overcome the world by my death. And I am calling you to live as people with a real and lively faith and hope, even in the midst of darkness and hopelessness. To be sure, there will be times when it seems that all is lost and my promises are false. But don’t succumb to that evil. Look at the works I did, the healings and miracles I performed, my power over the forces of darkness. Look at my resurrection. Look at my presence in the lives of my healed and transformed people, warts and all. These are signs of God’s rule that is coming and in your midst. Do you see and believe them?
Of course, left to our own devices, we cannot keep from suffering doubts occasionally. That is why we have to live out our faith together. As the writer of Hebrews urges us, we are to come together regularly to worship God for his gift of life and forgiveness and salvation (healing) in and through Jesus and the power of the Spirit. Every week when we come to Jesus’ table we are reminded of the meaning of his death and the resultant life we receive because of his death. We are also to encourage each other in the faith, and help support each other when we doubt or are in trouble. This is the doing part. Overall, I think we do a wonderful job of these things here at St. Augustine’s. It is one of the best ways for us to shine the light of Christ on each other and the world that desperately needs to bathe itself in his light. Let us therefore continue to remind each other that we are people who have things to do and places to go. Let us encourage each other with these words and in how we love each other so that we may bring glory to our Lord Jesus who died for us so that we might be healed and get to live with him forever in the light of his loving presence. That really is Good News, folks, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.