A Healing Faith

Sermon delivered on the 2nd Sunday before Advent, November 18, 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 than the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Daniel 12.1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8.

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

Today we conclude our preaching series on the letter to the Hebrews. It is appropriate that we do so on a Sunday designated as one of our quarterly healing services because the letter’s theme is the basis for our ultimate healing as we live out our mortal days. This is what I want us to look at this morning. 

Our epistle lesson reaches a crescendo of sorts in which the writer comes to the climax of his argument about the sacrifice of Christ. Last week we considered the grim fact that we are all slaves to that outside and hostile power we call Sin, and as long as we are enslaved by its power, we can and should expect nothing but God’s judgment and wrath on us. It is truly a fearsome prospect for anyone who cares at all about his or her relationship with God. But we also saw that because of Christ, God has freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin. Now today, the writer reinforces this truth for us. He tells us that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins was and is so efficacious (having the power to accomplish that which it intends), that our Lord sat down at the right hand of God. What in the world does that mean? It means, as the writer of Hebrews goes on to say, that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross on our behalf was perfect, that when sins are truly forgiven, there is no more need for sacrifices. Because there was nothing further for Christ to do for us to effect our salvation and reconciliation to God, he could sit down or rest because his job was complete. Mission impossible for us, but mission accomplished for God the Father. On the cross, Sin’s power over us has been broken because the powers behind it have been defeated. And because of that, our sins have been forgiven and we enjoy full reconciliation with God. God will remember our sins no more because he has dealt with them, as well as the power behind them, the power of Sin, once and for all by judging our sins in Christ’s body on the cross. As St. Paul tells us, there is now no condemnation for those who belong to Christ because in him, God condemned our sins in the flesh (not Jesus) so as to spare us from his holy and right wrath on our evildoing (Romans 8.1-5). To be sure, there is an aura of mystery in all this as is fitting when the Almighty acts on our behalf in such a great and powerful way. Were we to understand fully all that happened in Jesus’ death, I suspect it would not be from God at all, but rather of our own making. 

So God the Father has dealt with the vexing problem of Sin and Evil in and through God the Son. We celebrate and proclaim this accomplishment each week when we come to Christ’s holy Table to feed on our Lord’s body and blood. Listen carefully to the words of institution as the bread and wine are consecrated and you will hear once again what Christ’s sacrifice accomplished. When by faith we accept his sacrifice as completely sufficient to deal with our sins, awful as they might be, flawed and broken as we are, several things happen. First, we believe the conditions that prevent us from entering into God’s direct presence, namely the filthy rags that are our sins, have been removed and we have full access to God the Father. We no longer need to fear coming into God’s holy presence because our sins have been dealt with and God remembers them no more. We are made pure, despite who we are, to stand in the Lord’s presence. That starts here and now and will be fully consummated one day in God’s new world where we will live directly in God’s presence forever. This is a massively important promise for us to consider and accept by faith because most of us, most of the time, have something that hangs heavy on our hearts, something we’ve said or done that we wish we hadn’t, something that haunts us and makes us afraid of being found out. How wonderful, then, to know that Christ’s sacrifice has the power, if we accept it by faith and trust—and that’s the key, to accept it by faith and trust—to wash every stain from our conscience so that we can come to God without any shadow falling across our relationship. That’s what the writer is getting at when he talks about our hearts being sprinkled clean from an evil conscience by the blood of the Lamb.

But we want to protest. That’s too good to be true! No one deserves a gift like that! Where’s the justice? Surely I must make amends somehow as part of the bargain. If you think along these lines, STOP IT!! Stop it now!! That is from the devil and your own pride. To think this way means you think you can somehow effect your own salvation. Wrong. It also means you are calling the Word of God a lie and do not believe in the love of God poured out for you on the cross so that you could be his and not Sin’s, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to go there. No, the writer is crystal clear about this issue. The blood of Christ shed for us is sufficient to reconcile us to God and make us fit to live in God’s presence, just like our first ancestors did before the Fall. If you are interested at all in ending your anxieties that have their root in being separated from God because of your sins and the related mental, spiritual, and bodily illnesses that flow from those anxieties, start right here with this promise and believe it, my beloved. As the writer tells us, call on the Lord and he will bless you with his Spirit and confirm to you the truth of this astonishing claim, thanks be to God. Amen? This confession of hope about Christ’s sacrifice being sufficient to deal with all your sins and free you from Sin’s power will get you through the darkest hours of your life because it addresses the heart of all our problems and the evil in this world, and it is based on the promises of God who is completely trustworthy and faithful to his promises.

Second, and related to our first point, when we put our whole hope and trust in the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice for us to free us from our sins and reconcile us to God, it must change us, and for the better. Our writer tells us that we are to encourage each other, to love each other, and to do good deeds. Christ’s sacrifice is not a license for us to continue living in the darkness. If you think that Jesus died so that you can sin freely, think again and consider the following verses that follow our epistle lesson this morning. “Dear friends, if we deliberately continue sinning after we have received knowledge of the truth [about Jesus’ sacrifice for sin] there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins. There is only the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire [of God’s judgment] that will consume his enemies” (Hebrews 10.26-27). Jesus did not suffer and die for us so that we could continue living in the darkness and thus face God’s ultimate condemnation and wrath. What kind of loving God would want that? And who in their right mind would want to return to being a slave of Sin after having tasted real freedom? No, Christ’s death frees us to live for him and his perfect and holy goodness, and we are promised Christ’s help to live this way in the power and person of his Spirit and each other. Being a Christian is not about trying to tough it out on our own. If we attempt that, we are doomed to failure and lose all motivation to live a good life for God. That’s why there’s no such thing as an isolate Christian. It’s an oxymoron. That’s also why we must continue to meet together so that we can encourage each other and be encouraged. When the Spirit is around, we sense it immediately because there is health, goodness, and vitality in the air, and it’s patently obvious he is with us when we gather as St. Augustine’s. I sense it and have had countless visitors tell me that. This in itself should encourage and provoke us to do good and to love each other. It also serves to remind us that the Word of God is true as we see its promises fulfilled in our life together.

And we’re going to need to draw on all this truth and encouragement because as all our lessons attest, we live in evil times and our faith is tested regularly. We hear about the awful wildfires in California. We read about mass murders on a regular basis. We are dismayed at all the bitterness and rancor in our society. We suffer hurts and setbacks and illnesses of all kinds. We lose loved ones to death, sometimes in unjust and untimely ways. We see a drift away from traditional Judeo-Christian values in our culture and it makes us angry and afraid. These things (and more) make us wonder if God has abandoned us. But all our lessons insist that God has NOT abandoned us. In our OT lesson the prophet warns of perilous times to come during which there will be great anguish as God’s people are persecuted and killed. But then he promises God’s deliverance. In our gospel lesson, Jesus warns of awful times ahead for God’s people, but implies deliverance when he talks about the beginning of birth pangs, presumably the beginning of God’s new creation. The psalmist speaks of the futility of worshiping any other god than the living God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. And our epistle lesson speaks of Jesus sitting down at God’s right hand, NT parlance for ruling, until his enemies are defeated. All these writings, and dozens more, testify and remind us that the evil we experience in our lives is under God and his Christ’s authority and are part of God’s inscrutable plan of redemption. They call us not to understand why, but to believe God is working even now to advance Christ’s victory over the dark powers accomplished on the cross and to be consummated at his return. 

So how does this relate to us as God’s people in Christ? We are called to be part of the cosmic battle to defeat Christ’s enemies! But we don’t use the weapons of the world to fight the fight because to do so means we have already capitulated to the darkness. Instead, we are to put on the whole armor of God—peace that comes from our faith in Christ’s sacrifice for us, God’s truth and righteousness, God’s word in Scripture, and prayer (Ephesians 6.1-18). Every time we refuse to repay evil with evil, every time we forgive where forgiveness is undeserved or unwarranted, every time we pray for the welfare and conversion of our enemies’ hearts, every time we refuse to slander or act maliciously or denigrate or gossip or seek revenge, to name just a few, we help put Christ’s enemies under his feet. Again we want to protest. We try doing these things and nothing seems to happen! Patience, humility, and faith my impatient, proud, and skeptical ones. Persevere and rejoice that you are called to battle for your Lord Jesus and to suffer for his Name when necessary because this is how the kingdom comes on earth as in heaven. God can and does use your suffering for his redemptive purposes. You’ve got God’s word that you’ve been rescued from your slavery to Sin and Death and from his terrible wrath on your sins. You believe this promise because you know that God is trustworthy and you know God’s love for you poured out on the cross of Jesus Christ. You have other Christians here to encourage and support you because we all need the human touch. Don’t be a proud and arrogant fool; use this precious resource! You’ve got the testimony of the prophets that God foreknew the evil that plagues his world and you, and he’s done something about it, unexpected and astonishing as it may be. And you’ve got the hope and promise of God’s new world of which you will be part, despite who you are and the sins you have committed, because of God’s great love for you made known supremely in Christ’s sacrifice for your sins. Let all that heal and transform you by believing it so that you too may stand firm in the power of the Lord and proclaim all he has done for you and his broken and hurting world, 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.