The (Not Always So Obvious) Kingdom of God

Sermon delivered on the third Sunday before Advent B, November 11, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9.24-28; Mark 12.38-44.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Today marks the beginning of the brief season of kingdomtide, where we focus on the kingship of our Lord Jesus. This season culminates in the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of our church calendar year. Thus we turn to the royal color of red—I do look extra stylish in red, don’t you think?—to help remind us of this royal focus (although green is still acceptable as we are still in so-called ordinary time of the calendar). You’ll also notice the readings begin to shift their focus more to the future with the promise of the Lord making his reappearance to consummate his saving work. Now that you’ve had a brief lesson on the church calendar, we can turn our attention to the matter at hand and focus on the letter to the Hebrews. What are we to make of our epistle lesson’s strange claims about blood sacrifice to remove sin and Christ entering heaven to appear directly before God on our behalf? What can that possibly have to do with us? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

You recall that last week during our celebration of the feast of All-Saints we talked about our sure and certain Christian hope of living in God’s direct presence in the new creation. But here’s the problem with that. As Scripture makes clear, living in God’s presence can be a dangerous proposition. Just ask, for example, Korah and his followers who rebelled against the Lord in the wilderness and were swallowed alive by the earth or consumed by fire (Numbers 16), or Uzzah who was struck dead because he reached out to prevent the Ark of God from falling off its cart as it was being transported to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6.6-8). The reason living with God is a dangerous proposition for humans is because God is holy and we are not. We are sin-stained and God in his perfect goodness and righteousness cannot allow any kind of profane or sinful thing to remain in his presence. Something has to be done on our behalf.

This ought to make sense to us, at least on one level. Consider our Lord’s condemnation of the religious leaders in today’s gospel lesson. Here were the very folks charged with teaching God’s people how to be God’s people, but they were more interested in their own status and honor. Worse yet, Jesus accused them of robbing and extorting widows, people who represent the most vulnerable in society and who have God’s special attention and concern. No wonder Jesus warned of their condemnation. Or closer to home, consider the terrible events in the news this past of week. Twelve more innocent people were murdered in yet another mass shooting, with the murderer taking his own life. This on top of deadly wildfires in northern and southern California that are consuming entire communities, causing multiple fatalities and great anxiety as families wonder if their loved ones are safe. It is a heart-wrenching thing to watch. Or consider the recently completed midterm elections with its accompanying bombardment of attack ads that focus on destroying the character and integrity of one’s opponent. Never mind the pressing issues at hand. It’s all about claiming your opponent is the sorriest excuse for a human being that ever lived. I don’t know about you, but by election day, I was about ready to scream. Now tell me, could a good and right God who is absolutely opposed to any kind of evil allow that in his space? Would you, could you really believe in a good and just God if he didn’t put an end to this kind of stuff? Would you really want to live in the new creation forever knowing that there was violence, rancor, suffering, and injustice of all kinds, always wondering if you could be the next victim? I know I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to live forever in a world like that and if a Sin-corrupted person like me wouldn’t want that, I’m pretty sure it’s a safe bet that God doesn’t want that either.

What we are talking about, of course, is the problem of Sin, that alien and hostile power that has entered God’s good world to enslave us by its power. I’m not talking about our various acts of wrongdoing or thinking, or our sins. Frankly they are not the real problem; they are the awful symptoms of the real problem—our slavery to the power of Sin. Biblically speaking, to be enslaved by the power of Sin is much worse than our various wrongdoings, heinous as some of them are. To be in Sin means to be catastrophically separated from the eternal and healing love of God. It means to be separated from God’s heavenly banquet with all its wholeness, healing, and joy, with no hope of ever being allowed in (think the parable of Lazarus, Luke 16.19-31) for reasons we’ve just seen. To be enslaved in Sin means that greed, violence, cruelty and the like will continue unabated in our lives and God’s world because we are hopelessly trapped in our own worse self and miserably aware of the chasm between the way we are and the way God created us to be. This latter knowledge can and does lead many to self-loathing and despair as many of us can attest first-hand. No matter how frequently we resolve to do better, no matter how guilty we feel, no matter how much we are determined to repent of our sins, it’s not enough. Our repentance cannot free us from our slavery to the power of Sin because it is far greater than our will and our mortal power. To repeat, the point is not about the wrongdoings we may have done, troubling and destructive as they might be. The point is that they are symptoms of a far deeper and more consequential problem for us: Our enslavement to an outside and evil power (Sin) that is hostile to God’s creative purposes and bent on destroying all that is good in God’s creation, and we are unable to free ourselves from its grip.

Why am I spending so much time on this? Well, I love calling you all miserable sinners and making you feel rotten and guilty. Plus, it irritates my wife to no end, value added. But I also have a more legitimate reason. If we are going to grasp the significance and relevance of our epistle lesson this morning, we have to be crystal clear in our thinking about the enormous gravity of the problem of Sin. When we understand we are slaves to it and are powerless to free ourselves from its grip, we begin to focus on the real problem and better appreciate God’s solution that can lead to real repentance. We understand, for example, why St. Paul would make the strange statement that our enemies are not other humans but the dark powers behind the evildoing, i.e., the power of Sin (Ephesians 6.12), so that we learn how to really call on the name and power of the Lord. A grieving mother of a murder victim in California raged that she didn’t want people’s prayers. She wanted gun control. Her anger is understandable and I can only imagine her pain and grief; my heart breaks for her. But she misses the point in her rage and grief. Until Sin’s power is broken and people’s lives transformed by the radical love of Christ crucified, acts like this will become increasingly common and no amount of legislation, however good and effective it is, will solve the problem because human solutions cannot overcome Sin’s grip on us that causes us, for example, to shoot others for no apparent reason. I am not suggesting we take no action. That would fly in the face of the witness of Scripture as seen powerfully in our OT lesson today about Ruth. What I am saying is that ultimately human solutions will be incomplete and only partially effective because of the radical nature of Evil.

Moreover, understanding our slavery to Sin actually helps us to not despise or loathe ourselves because as we’ve seen, our individual sins are not the real problem. When we understand the real problem of Sin as we’ve just discussed it, we start to see ourselves as God sees us: as victims who have become hopelessly enslaved by a power from which we cannot free ourselves, hard as we might try, and who desperately need God’s help. We acknowledge this reality every time we confess that “there is no health in us” in the General Confession. We don’t confess this so that we can self-loathe, reminding ourselves how rotten we are. We confess this to acknowledge our slavery to Sin and God’s ability and willingness to free us from our slavery. Don’t misunderstand. We are responsible for our wrongdoing and wrong thinking—the devil may have made us do it but we are still the ones who did it and therefore responsible for it—and there are some people who truly have been consumed by the power of Evil and who are past redemption. But those people, by the grace of God, are thankfully a small minority. For the vast majority of us, when we get our thinking right about the real problem of Sin and its enslaving power over us, it helps us hear the Good News of Jesus Christ about which our epistle lesson speaks and to which we now turn.

So if we truly are slaves to Sin’s power and helpless to free ourselves from its grip, what’s the solution? As we’ve seen, left on our own, we are doomed to live a hellish existence with occasional periods of respite to provide us with some distraction and relief. But break the power of Sin and everything changes. The basis for God’s healing us and freeing us from our bondage to Sin are established and real transformative change, however slowly, however idiosyncratic, is possible. That’s the punchline. So how does God accomplish our rescue? The writer of Hebrews tells us today and throughout his entire letter. That’s why we should read Hebrews regularly because it is the only NT book that focuses almost exclusively on Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin. But if we don’t understand the real nature of the problem, we’ll never come close to understanding the love of God expressed for us on the cross. God foreknew our predicament and our slavery to Sin. But God did not create us to be Sin’s slaves. He created us to be his image-bearers with all its relational implications. And so in God’s wisdom, love, mercy, and justice, God acted to break Sin’s power over us because only God has the power to free us from its power. So long before we were ever aware of Sin and our slavery to its power, God moved to defeat its power over us and free us. But God did this in the most unexpected way, by becoming human, or in NT parlance, by sending his only begotten Son to suffer and die in our place so as to break Sin’s power over us and reconcile us to God so that we could stand in God’s direct presence without having to fear being destroyed by his perfect holiness. his is the achievement of the cross. This is Christ’s achievement on our behalf, thanks be to God!

In our epistle lesson today, the writer of Hebrews speaks of the high priest who atoned for Israel’s sins once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The chief function of priests in ancient Israel was to mediate God’s presence among God’s people so that God could live with them without destroying them for reasons we’ve discussed. Each year the high priest would offer an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people who in turn would confess them and declare their repentance. But as we’ve seen this was doomed to failure because humans don’t have the power to break our slavery to Sin. Only God has that power. But here the writer tells us that Jesus made the perfect sacrifice to God to atone for our sins. His sacrifice was and is perfect because Jesus is fully God and fully human and because Jesus remained sinless. He therefore could make reparations or atone for our sins once and for all that have alienated us from God and each other. In doing so, the writer also tells us that Jesus broke Sin’s power over us so that we might no longer be slaves to it. This happened long before we knew we were ever sinners and independently of any guilt we might feel over our sins. God acted before we ever did one wrong thing. The NT writers don’t spend a lot of time talking about how Christ’s death accomplished all that, just that his sacrifice was and is fully efficacious, i.e., it has the power to produce its desired results, in this case freeing us from our slavery to Sin and reconciling us to God, which was always God’s intention. That’s why it only had to happen once and was available to all before and after Christ’s atoning death. This is our only hope and chance to be freed from our bondage to Sin because only God is more powerful than Sin’s power.

But we all know that we’re not totally free of Sin’s power in this mortal life. We all still commit sins from time to time. Yet the NT writers insist that in Jesus’ death we are freed from our slavery to Sin and so we are called to accept the claim on faith—enigmatic, mysterious, and impenetrable as Jesus’ work on the cross may be. When we do, the writer of Hebrews promises that when Jesus appears again at his second coming, he will fully consummate his saving work started with his atoning death when he raises our dead bodies and banishes Evil and Sin forever. And so we live in hope, the sure and certain expectation of things to come because of the Lord’s trustworthiness. As the writer warns, judgment for our sins there will be. But because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us, we will hear the verdict of not guilty because the Son of God has born God’s terrible judgment on our sins and freed us from the power behind those sins. When we realize the depth of the problem and God’s gracious and wondrous solution to it before we ever turned to Jesus in faith, it helps us bear the fruit of repentance in the truest sense of the word. God acted on our behalf to free us from that which would ultimately condemn and kill us. We certainly don’t deserve this love and mercy but it’s ours for the taking. I could talk about what that means for us in the living of our days, but I want to stop here so that we can all contemplate and focus on this wondrous love, goodness, justice, and mercy of God. Amen?

Without the blood of Christ shed for us, none of us has the hope of new creation because none of us could stand in the perfect and holy presence of God the Father. God knew the problem and what needed to be done about it from all eternity, and has God freed us from our slavery to Sin’s power. God did not accomplish this by sending in the tanks and routing the enemy in a spectacular military victory, at least not this time. Instead God saved us by becoming human and dying on a cross to transform our hopeless human condition and then working behind the scenes in and through faithful humans who trust in God’s goodness and power to fulfill his promises to us. That’s one of the main points of Ruth. The Good News is that God has acted on our behalf to restore us to himself forever, albeit in a surprising and unexpected way (at least from a human perspective) just as he always intended. There is much ahead of us and many unanswered questions. But when we put our hope and trust in Jesus our Savior and let him claim us in a positive way like Sin has claimed us in a negative way, we will be transformed and healed, not completely in this world but surely in the new creation. In letting Christ claim us, we also proclaim to the world that we trust this King of kings and Lord of lords to rescue us from all that hate us and want to destroy us. I cannot think of anything more relevant to the living of our days than this, my beloved. Ponder this Good News of Jesus Christ that is yours and commit yourself to him in the power and grace of God the Father mediated through the Holy Spirit. Let it heal and transform you, one minute at a time, so that you too may be refreshed and equipped to serve the Lord who loves you and gave himself for you to rescue you from all Evil and darkness, 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.