Our Trembling, Sanctuary Hearts - thrive UMC Official Blog

Our Trembling, Sanctuary Hearts

 

For about the last six weeks, we’ve been reading and gaining instruction from the New Testament sermon called “Hebrews.”  And we opened the series talking about the many different kinds of ‘messengers,’ or angels, that we might encounter in the world.  This sermon continues by identifying the greatest messenger of all, who is Jesus, Son of God, and also our great high-priest.  This morning, we’re skipping over a couple of chapters, because they comprise what I’m afraid might come across here as a rather long and somewhat tedious argument illustrating how Jesus fulfills some complicated expectations that we don’t even have anymore.  So let it suffice to say that here Jesus is both the continuation of the ancient Jewish promise and tradition; and at the same time, he’s revealing something new.

Today, we’re picking up on the conclusion of the argument, where the preacher asks his audience to apply what he’s demonstrated.   Please open your Bibles or Bible apps.  We’re reading from Hebrews, chapter 10, verses 19-25.  It says this:

19 Brothers and sisters, we have confidence that we can enter the holy of holies by means of Jesus’ blood, 20 through a new and living way that he opened up for us through the curtain, which is his body, 21 and we have a great high priest over God’s house.

22 Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us, since our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water.

23 Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable.

24 And let us consider each other carefully for the purpose of sparking love and good deeds. 25 Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.  

In order to see what’s really going on here, we’ll first need two quick reminders about the old Jewish way of understanding the universe here, concerning atonement and blood.  On Yom Kippur, the Jewish high-holy day of Atonement, the High Priest –and only the High Priest- of the Jerusalem Temple, would enter a most sacred room called the Holy of Holies.  This is the only time any human being was ever permitted to enter that place, which was otherwise isolated from the outer sanctuary by thick stone walls and a huge curtain.  And in the room, called the Holy of Holies, the greatest prize of the Jewish people was stored: the Arc of the Covenant, which was the box that was used to store the original stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The arc was understood to be a kind of throne for God on earth, and almost a kind of portal to God’s full presence in the heavens.  If you’ll remember, the Arc of the Covenant was such a holy artifact that if an unclean or unworthy person were to come to close to it, God would strike them dead –and there are a number of stories of this happening in the Hebrew Bible.

So anyway, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies to do two things on the Day of Atonement: first, he would burn some incense to literally clear the air between the people and God.  Then,  just a bit later, the priest would come in two more times to sprinkle animal blood on a part of the Arc called ‘The Mercy Seat.’  This was a sin offering to God: it was supposed to appease God’s offense at everyone’s misdeeds and sins committed by accident and out of ignorance (by the way, the only sins that were forgiven were sins of ignorance; but that’s a whole other topic for another day).  And by this sprinkling of animal blood on the special part of the arc, God would be prepared to face and bless the people once again.

Now, this seems incredibly bizarre to us, because we can’t imagine a single scenario where sprinkling blood on something would make anyone who’s a little peeved at us less upset.  For instance, if you were to forget to clean the house one afternoon before company came over for dinner –a clear sin of ignorance- there’s no way sprinkling some goat-blood on the dining room table would ever clear you from the wrath from your spouse.

But for the ancient Jewish person, this act had tremendous symbolic and transformational significance.  Because, you see, blood was understood to be the material life-force of living things.  When enough blood leaves the body, the creature dies.  This is why there is a commandment in Leviticus 17 against eating any blood with your meat: because that would be almost like eating the animal’s spirit.  And if you were to eat the animal’s living essence, you would then become something more of a beast yourself.  Just like all of those barbarian gentiles!

Yet, by sprinkling blood on the Mercy Seat what they are doing is giving life to the Covenant between God and Israel.  For the whole rest of the year, through countless acts of carelessness and inattentiveness, they had let the relationship between them and God slip to grow stale and stagnant. (Which, by the way, is this something we can relate to?)  So once a year, every year, they would have one guy go in and sprinkle some life on the covenant to try and rekindle the old spark. The blood would clear off the dust and grime that just collect with time. It was an act and a sign of living, bodily commitment to try and start afresh in their efforts t to fulfill their part of the promise once more.  At the same time, however, it was also a gift of profound and utter humility. In response to all of the wonders and sustenance generously bestowed unto the whole of creation, all they have to give back is a spattering of goat-branded life. God gives the whole world, the spirit of all life, their own bodies, the land they live in, the food they eat, every bit of wealth and power in their possession, the life-preserving law, and establishes the Covenant of promise single-handedly.   And to compensate for every opportunity for a good deed missed, accrued over a whole year, these people offer back a smattering of vitality that they took from another living creature –and not even enough to fill a dixie cup.

So do you see what this act meant to them?  This sacrifice simultaneously affirmed that their efforts and gifts were an issue of supreme and cosmic importance –it was up to them to keep the Covenant alive.  Therefore as a matter of the utmost urgency, they’d better really get with the program this time, and work hard to be faithful to God in the future. But at the exact same moment, when their gifts were set beside the overflowing and overwhelming generosity of God, what they had to give was, by comparison, practically nothing. Because everything they could  possibly give was only ever a gift that came from God in the first place.  Which makes their most sacred offering nothing more than bloody re-gifting of a thing they had no use for.

That’s how they understood atonement and reconciliation back then: it was a call of return to faithful action, and it was also a call to honest humility about our role and place in the universe.  And that’s how our relationship to God can be restored –it’s mostly about us having courage to, in light of all of our ignorance and failures, approach God with our pithy gift.

And that’s still something, isn’t it? But listen to this –the sermon of Hebrews makes an even wilder, more incredible proclamation, which is this: God’s throne has moved!  God’s residence has relocated! The Arc of the Covenant is the Mercy seat no longer, says the author, but now the site of reconciliation is –get this—your.  Heart.

Jesus’ death on the cross is the eternal sacrifice of atonement, and the blood sprinkled is his own –not on the Mercy Seat, but on our hearts.  And here it’s sprinkled on our hearts, because that’s the medium of the new Covenant, as it had been announced centuries before, by the prophet Isaiah. Now, our species has had almost two millennia to digest this radical pronouncement, so it’s practically old-hat for us to hear that God could set up shop in our hearts.  But remember: this was originally being proclaimed to people who believed coming too close to God’s holiness could kill you. The Holy of Holies was off limits to everyone, except the high priest –and even to him, except once a year.  And get this: there’s even a legend that holds that, before the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, he would first have a rope tied around his waist or ankle.  Because what should happen if the High Priest is found to be unworthy by God?  How could they retrieve his body when God strikes him dead?  His corpse would desecrate the sacred room, but since no one else is allowed in, sending others in to lug him out would only add more corpses! So the obvious solution becomes: tie a rope around him! Now, some say that this was only a legend and not an actual a practice; but I think it illustrates a certain point, doesn’t it?

But here Hebrews says: come right on in.  The Holy of Holies –the gateway to God in the heavens lies clear before us.  Christ’s own body is the curtain, pulled open to make a living way.  He’s made himself the offering, as a great High Priest over God’s house.

That’s the whole message of this elegant sermon: that God has made yet one more move to draw nearer to us.  God had first condescended the heavens to show a glimpse of his glory to Moses, and then he rested his greatest glory upon the Arc of the Covenant.  But now, God, through this supreme act, has welcomed us to draw near: first because now our hearts have been cleansed from an evil conscience, and then also because our bodies have been baptized.

“Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty our faith gives us…” (Heb. 10:22) the scripture tells us.

God is no longer off limits for us.   The way to heaven lies open.  And I can’t even begin to imagine what this might mean –whole new worlds of possibility, previously incomprehensible, now become available. And you might think that this would be a great time to talk about the kind of bliss that comes by being in God’s presence!  If this preacher could be so eloquent and thorough about a blood sacrifice, just think of what could be said about the wonders of paradise and the tremendous treasures that lie in wait for the faithful!  Surely we can forget all earthly troubles and toils, now that the gates to heaven has been opened for us!  Oh, we’ve been saved!  Let’s go rub it in all the smug faces of the people who made fun of us in high school!

You might think that’s what comes next, but what he actually says is far less grandiose.  What he actually says, after he calls the community to draw near to God, is: “Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable.  And let us consider each other carefully for the purpose of sparking love and good deeds.  Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing.  Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”

        So what that amounts to is three simple things that we’re to do in response to God’s grand revelation through Jesus:

  1. Draw near to God with a genuine heart
  2. Hold on to the confession
  3. Consider one another, and keep meeting with one another, for the purpose of sparking love and good deeds.

    Basically, be encouraging.

After this long and lofty sermon about Jesus fulfilling God’s reconciliation for all time, and announcing the eternal Jubilee, and establishing a new covenant, and fully opening the way to God’s total glory, the preachers says: hold on to what you say you believe; stick with the other believers; and encourage one another.

Basically –if you want to slice it down even more: the audience is being told to just keep doing what you’re doing.

At first this might seem like a rather disappointing call to action –since it doesn’t call us to do anything new at all.  But if we’d sit with it, I think we’ll discover that this just might be the most important –and hardest- work we could accomplish. Because the real call here is to keep doing what you’re doing, and not lose heart.  And that last part is the real struggle, I think: to keep doing what you’re doing even though you’ve already been doing it a long time. And meanwhile, the time for reward and time of relief are still undisclosed.

Some of us here know what that’s like. Where we’ve been at our jobs long enough to feel the enthusiasm fade, but there’s still 10, 20, or even 30 years yet to go –and we wonder: am I gonna be able to hold on that long?  And the work of our faith can sometimes feel even more daunting, because the clock counting down the time that remains lies hidden. So we have to keep our hearts up for what seems like ‘indefinitely.’

And at first, it’s so easy, isn’t it?  It’s easy because it’s exciting.  There’s this phenomenon I’ve noticed, especially around thrive, where someone brand new will come to our community for the first time. And always they’ll look a little bewildered; but probably 80% of the time what is for us a familiar chorus will come out: ‘wow, you know I never knew church could be like this.’  And they’re excited, because it’s all new to them.  Another realm of possibility for the church experience has been opened to them, and given a new texture. And often, that excitement will bring them back.

But I’ve seen it happen over and over again: on its own, that excitement only lasts a few months, at best.  Then soon the new becomes familiar, and then, if you hold on to it long enough, it’s tradition before you know it –a relic of time passed.

Here the real challenge is revealed: how do you keep your heart engaged and alive through the long-term grind?  And this community saw it in the beginning: they were able and willing to endure insult, exclusion, and abuse from the larger society –and even suffer the confiscation of their stuff with joy the text says.  But that’s because they thought Jesus would be right back.  So hardship didn’t deter them –if anything it only added fuel to their heart-fire, because they expected the prize to be right there.  But even after all of that, the simple passing of time has still threatened to completely undo them.

Probably most of us know how that goes.  But that’s why I think the prescription found here in Hebrews is just as wise and elegant as the sermon that leads up to it.  The remedy to all afflictions that have slowed and burdened our hearts is encouragement.

Not just followers of Jesus, but every single member of our species needs encouragement.  If we trust only in our own solitary powers our hearts will absolutely give out eventually.  People afflicted with depression know this intimately: sometimes you need a little help just getting out of bed to eat breakfast.  A phone-call, a text, a funny joke on the internet.  But really none of those are adequate substitutes for having real life people who love us and share life with us.  And that’s what we’re doing here: we’re here to give encouragement to the whole world.  We’re here to re-inspire them again and again in their belief that this life and the struggle are worth it.

So brothers and sisters: keep doing what you’re doing.  Keep drawing near, with a genuine heart, to God. Hold on to your belief without growing faint.  Keep one another in your thoughts and prayers –never giving up the habit of meeting together.  Because that’s how human hearts are inspired to keep beating: by being encouraged. Only by drawing in the stuff of life are we ever able to pump it out again as a good and life-giving gift for others.

Therefore, let us lift up our weary, trembling hearts, and may we encourage one another to let them become once more, sanctuaries for our holy God.

Let’s pray.

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