Proper 26 – Series B
I recently read a fascinating chapter in a book by Panayiotis Nellas. (Deification in Christ: Orthodox Perspectives on Human Nature. St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press, 1987.) In this book Nellas explores the Orthodox understanding of what it means that we were made in the image of God and what it means that Christ is incarnate into Humanity. He does a little survey of what the Greek patristic fathers said about the image of God in Adam: He was rational, he was a “co-creator” in that human beings were participants in the creation of more humans. The image was also seen in the fact that we rule the physical world, however imperfectly, and finally they saw the image of God in the fact that we do have some freedom of the will, we are not simply driven by our instincts as are the animals.
But these he called “analogs” of the deity, ways in which we seem to look like some aspect of God. More importantly, he said, was the discussion which turned to the “being” of humanity. He asserted that Greek theology did not see Adam as he was created as being in some sort of a stasis. As if God put him in the garden as if it was a museum, a place where things never change. Adam’s perfection was not such that he would never change, grow, learn, or develop but he was perfectly created to do exactly those things. His ultimate goal was a perfectly harmonious union with the divine.
This of course has fascinating implications for the incarnation of Christ. One of the things he said was that the incarnation was always part of the plan. We often conceive of the incarnation of Christ as the solution to Sin, which of course it is, but Nellas and the Greek theologians imagine that if Adam had not sinned, the Logos would have become incarnate as the goal of human development. While sin distorted the divine plan, it did not substantively change it. Jesus incarnation was marred by sin, it thrust upon it a second purpose, that of redemption, but sin did not force the incarnation. God is never forced, you see.
Nellas also portrays Christ as a bridge. The divine nature and the creation are far apart from one another, but that is not a spatial difference, it is an essential difference. It is rather like a person standing out in a park. He or she is surrounded by radio waves, there is music all around us. But because I am simply not a radio, I cannot access that music. The radio bridges the essential gap between which is not one of distance, but one of who I am and what those radio waves are. It is an imperfect image of my own creation, not Nellas’ but I think it works.
He says that Jesus bridges the gap between the human and the divine, it does not erase the distance, but in Jesus both the human and the divine touch one another and in Jesus humanity is wholly affected by the Divine. This contact affects us all. It is like one part of me touching a source of electrical current, say my finger, the whole of me is shocked, the whole body recoils. The whole of humanity is electrified by the incarnation.
I am not sure that I buy everything that Nellas says. I am still thinking about some of this. At some points he seems far too Platonic for me. But I am glad to think of these things. The 2
readings today, the prayer we pray, these are profound things, things which make us think. The Hebrews text in particular will make us consider the incarnation and inspire thinkers like Nellas to think things anew. Deuteronomy will with simple words express profound thoughts. Jesus will stump the first century scribes with a question they cannot answer. It is very good to think about God.
Collect of the Day
Lord Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, cleanse us by the power of Your redeeming blood that in purity and peace we may worship and adore Your holy name; for You live and reign with the father the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The themes of the Epistle lesson dominate this prayer today. Jesus the high priest is the message of the writer to the Hebrews. A priest is the person who shuttles between the people and God. He brings the prayers of people to God. We are all called to be a nation of priests, that is one of the things that Christians do. But Jesus is our high priest. In the Jewish realm that meant he entered the holy place, on the feast of atonement, the Yom Kippur. There he would in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant offer the sacrifice for the sins of the whole people.
Jesus has done that for us, passing not through a curtain of cloth, but through the curtain of flesh, dying on a cross, offering the one perfect lamb the world has ever seen.
We ask him now to fulfill the other part of the priestly duty. The priest would leave the most holy place and bless the people with the blessing of God. There are a number of instances of this. In the exodus account Moses leaves the presence of God and the blood of sacrifices were sprinkled on the people. Jesus, as God being uncreated and as man having a created body, has paid the price which no mere creature could pay, the price of a world’s sin.
We ask him to cleanse us, with the power if his redemptive blood. This is not the purity and cleanliness which our world knows, but the right status before God. Make us right with our God, we cry. For our deepest and darkest problems are not those we experience daily in our lives as age, sickness, or even death. Our biggest problem is a God problem. Jesus is the answer for that.
“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, 2 that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.
4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command 3
you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
It really is a shame that this reading consistently goes up against the All Saints Day readings. This is a great text. Verse 4 is the confession of Judaism today. Every Jewish boy who has a bar mitzvah must learn to read at least this much in Hebrew.
A surface reading of the text might lead one to the conclusion that this is sort of a works righteousness. It seems that the obedience of the commandments is the key to success, a quid pro quo!
But a little closer inspection will bear much fruit here. First of all, when God enjoins the reader to head and obey the commandments, statutes, judgments, and ordinances, just what do we think he means? Of course it is the Torah and most folks will immediately run to the 10 Commandments on this. But those are really only a small part of these various commands, ordinances, and statutes. If you spend any time reading around in the Torah you learn that it is mostly rules, but most of those rules are not about moral behavior but about the restoration of relationship with God when that relationship is broken by sin. God is not telling them to be “perfectly good all the time.” He is telling them that in life when they break the rules, here is the way to fix that. Bring a lamb to the temple, sacrifice it, God purges you of your sins. David, despite his dalliance with Bathsheba is righteous because God forgives him. He is called a king like no other, not because he was so good, but because he listened to his Torah and understood that when one sins, one brings that garbage to God for forgiveness.
This is what God is asking for. When the later prophets upbraid the Israelites for their failures, it is not the failures of sinning, but the fact that they are bringing their sins and subsequent problems to Baal and Asherah instead of to YHWH.
Verse 5 then brings us to the great paradox of scripture: The command to love the Lord. It is oxymoronic. If I love God because he has commanded me, it is not really love. Keeping the commandment is breaking it, if I am loving in response to a command, that is.
But God’s word is always creative. This is the same voice that once spoke in darkness, “Let there be light.” And there was light. God commands love not to demand it of a loveless heart but to create that love in the heart which otherwise would be unable to love him.
Then he invites us to be part of that creative process. The Greek patristic theologians considered this to be the image of God in us. We, as mothers and fathers, create children with Him. We also through the discipline and forgiveness that is inherent in faithful parenting create a love of God. Of course, we cannot do that by ourselves. His Spirit attends us, empowers us, makes that possible and even remotely successful, but we are there. He is using our words and our deeds. If we are not there, he does not have us to use. 4
Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD! 2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, 3 who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways! 4 You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. 5 Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! 6 Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. 7 I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules. 8 I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!
Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm. Every line of this first section because with the letter Aleph which is not really like the letter A, but it becomes the root of the Greek “alpha.”
Psalm 119 is also a meditation upon the Law of God. Luther said it was a thorough commentary on the first commandment. The psalmist will “love” the commandments of the LORD. God creates some very interesting loves in people, including this one.
Hebrews 9:11-14 (15-22)
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and 5
hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
These words of Hebrews are deep into the argument of this fascinating book. What you find below is substantively the handout I used for chapters 9 and 10 in my New Testament classes.
Hebrews illustrates the limits of our knowledge and the whole academic endeavor with regard to the New Testament. We know a lot about the first century, the early Christians, Jesus, Paul, John, and others. But there is still a great deal we do not know and probably never will know this side of heaven. Hebrews is a fine example of that. We have not a clue who wrote it. It is very early, probably prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the destruction of the temple because it talks about the Temple as if it is still there, but some argue that point as well. It was not Paul, while the material in here is not antithetical to Paul, it just does not sound like him. This person was probably trained in one of the great schools of rhetoric or persuasive speech that was in Alexandria, Egypt. He uses many of their rhetorical tools.
This person was also a great theologian, an equal of Paul or John. He could have held his own in a conversation with anyone in the New Testament except perhaps Jesus himself. He was brilliant and understood the very difficult concepts of Christology very well. He could also write. And still we don’t know his or her name. (Some have proposed that it was Prisca, the woman Paul had teach Apollos in Acts 18) There are, you see, great gaps in what we know. Scholars like to tell us that that he/she has it figured out, at least that is how one’s doctoral dissertation or book gets published. But asserting we know everything and knowing everything are two very different things. One of the lessons I hope that we have taught is that just because a scholar or a pastor or anyone says it is so, does not make it so. There are literally two billion and more people who consider this Bible to be important for the way that they live their life and it shapes their view of the world. That is how many professed Christians there are. Another billion Muslims consider Jesus to be a holy man and a great prophet, perhaps second only to Mohammed. While they may not like Christians, they like what Jesus says. That is half of the world’s population. This is not the dry study of the academic but a living and vital force in the shaping of our world. It belongs to a lot of people, not just the academic.
The next lesson I hope that we have conveyed is that an Incarnational Christology (IC) is the best way to read this text. When I say that, I mean that the men who wrote it all believed in an 6
IC. They believed that Jesus was not just another man who happened to have some good ideas about living life, but that his death upon a cross and subsequent resurrection from the dead had a profound impact on history itself, it changed the way the world works and the way people live. Most importantly it changed the way God sees us and the rest of the world. They believed that this Jesus was really the creator of the universe in human flesh. That is an Incarnational Christology.
When we turn our attention to the letter to the Hebrews, we discover a substantial and sustained argument for IC. The writer to the Hebrews has profound things to say about the whole Jesus question, and on a level that exceeds any other author, he wrestles with the implications of calling Jesus God.
What do we know about this intriguing book? The author was steeped in the Old Testament. He quotes obscure parts of the OT and makes use of Rabbinic methods of interpretation. He was obviously Jewish and apparently quite knowledgeably Jewish. So was his audience. He makes no effort to explain any of this. This is part of what makes this book difficult. In the same way that a scientist in a technical journal will assume we know the intricacies of chemical reactions or physics, the writer to the Hebrews assumes his audience understands all this obscure OT material as well and can follow his rabbinic methods. What is more, the obscure portions he quotes are almost all related to the priesthood. For this reason, many have thought that this letter was addressed to Jewish priests that had converted to Christianity. They are almost the only folks in the ancient world who would have understood this stuff. (Acts 6:7 tells us that many priests did indeed convert in the first years of the Christian movement)
The occasion for the letter, which again reads more like a sermon and may well have been one, seems to be that the audience was considering abandoning their Christian faith and returning to Judaism. This would make sense if they were priests. A Jewish priest held an inherited office. You were a priest because you came from a priestly family, whereas Christian leaders were drawn from any members, even Gentiles. These priestly men were highly regarded in the Jewish communities and often sat atop the Jewish social structure. What is more, after the initial conversions to Christianity in the first decades of the movement, it appears that there was considerable hostility against Jewish Christians arising in Jewish circles. Just observe what happened to Paul in Jerusalem. Matthew’s Gospel, and John’s later works imply a sharp break between Jews and Christians. As that break would happen, the Christian Jewish priests would have, at some point, had to make a tough decision about being a Jewish priest or being a Christian. It appears that initially they could be both!
That is somewhat speculative, based upon this book itself, but it answers most of the questions and does so better than most other suggestions.
The book has two major sections. The first and smaller section is an argument that Jesus is greater than the angels. It appears that angels were a big part of first century Judaism. We find them all over the Qumran documents and other literature of the time. The second, and much 7
more involved argument is that Jesus is greater than Moses. (You would think that angels are greater than Moses which would render the second argument unnecessary, but this is not the way Jewish people thought. Moses was arguably the greatest of all!)
For us, things get really exciting in chapter 9. In chapter 9 the writer to the Hebrews makes his capstone argument. Again we have to delve into Jewish and this time Greek culture as well. As we have already noted the author seems to have had some training in the Alexandrian schools of rhetoric from the time. This makes sense. The city of Alexandria was 40% Jewish in the first century and was one of the intellectual centers of Judaism, especially as it intersected with Greek culture.
The Greek culture of the day and the Jews of Alexandria were very taken with Neo-Platonism, a dualistic way of looking at the world and interpreting the Bible. As we come to the topics of priests and temple, it would have worked like this. What we see on earth is a shadow of a heavenly reality. When you go to the temple and offer a sacrifice, it is a reflection or a shadow of the real act which is in heaven. The priest, the temple itself, the sacrifice, the worshipers, are in fact not entirely real. This all seems to have been born of a real question people asked. How can the sacrifice of a lamb or a goat on an altar actually do anything for me with God? How can sacrificing a goat or a lamb really take away sin? The Neo-platonic answer was that the goat did not take away the sins, but the goat was a shadow of another reality where that sin was actually taken away. That real world is heaven.
This is very alien to our largely Aristotelian/scientific world view that most people have; although, you will still find many people do have a dualistic world view to this day, even in North America. Most of us are not dualists, we are monists. We tend to think that reality is the stuff which is in front of us, the computer, the table, the chair we sit on, the light bulb, etc, it is all real. Many even subscribe to a materialism which suggests that this is the only reality.
If you start at verse 23 starts to talk about these copies, these shadows of the heavenly realities, suggesting that they need to be purified through rituals because they are only copies. (All quotations are from the ESV)
Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.  For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own,  for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.  And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,  so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
But establishing that Jesus is a great sacrifice is not the whole of what the writer to the Hebrews has in mind here, and he goes on in chapter 10 to follow his own logic. If the sacrificial system of the Old Testament priests is the shadow, then Jesus must be the shadow caster. In Christ, the actual thing has left the heavenly realm and entered into the shadows of this world. When we see Christ, we do not see a shadow or a copy of the heavenly thing, we see the actual heavenly thing.
By doing this the writer to the Hebrews collapses the Neo-platonic dualism; the structure of Platonism is twisted into monism in Christ. He is of both realms. When we look at Jesus we don’t see a shadow or sketch of the heavenly thing, we see the real thing.
[10:1] For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near… For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
This then makes the argument for the writer to the Hebrews. His audience which is thinking about returning to the realm of the shadows would be foolish to do so. In worshipping Christ they have put aside the shadows and are worshiping the real thing.
 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,  by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,  and since we have a great priest over the house of God,  let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,  not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
And with that we will leave it. Has the writer to the Hebrews convinced? Can he still convince today? As we noted earlier half the world’s population reads them as some sort of a revelation from God. Its primary character is Jesus and the claim it makes about him must either be believed or rejected by every individual. It continues to confront people in every generation.
28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 9
33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly.
This text falls in the week which follows the triumphal entry, which Mark records in chapter 11. This is Holy Week. The tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife. In a few short days Jesus will hang on a cross, lie in a tomb, rise triumphanity from death. Right now, however, Mark wants the reader to experience the tension. Most likely he does so because his own audience is in one of these sorts of moments. He wants the reader to see that Jesus was also in this time, his first disciples were there, and he wants the reader in persecution to see how Jesus did this.
Jesus has been deftly turning aside every thrust of the opponents. He will die on the day of the Passover feast, the lamb whose blood on the doorpost causes the angel of death of pass over. But the Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes do not know this. They are gunning for him now.
In the verses immediately prior, Jesus has turned aside a particularly clumsy attempt by the Sadducees. One of the teachers of the Law, noticing how well Jesus answered seems to forget the whole game for just a moment and ask Jesus a genuine question, the question which is recorded here. He asks Jesus to take a side in a debate which was raging in the theological circles of the day about the relative importance of the various commandments. Even though the wolves are circling around him, Jesus seems almost refreshed by this question. He answers it, one of the few times Jesus actually answers a question in the NT.
The scribe responds approvingly and even takes it a step further, noting that this is not about ritual observance but much more about having the heart in the right place. Loving God and neighbor is much more important than the right sacrifices. Jesus then says something really interesting: “You are not far from the kingdom.” Of course these guys all thought they were in the kingdom, but Jesus’ answer stuns the crowd into silence. Jesus seems to be asserting that he knows who is in and who is not. He has the ability to discern. Of course for us who confess him to be Christ that is a given, but for them, this is a radical thought. What is more, he suggests that the very best of their teachers are not there, they might only be close.
Since they won’t ask him any more questions, Jesus asks them some questions. He gives them a real stumper. David calls the Christ his Lord but the Christ is the son of David. In the ancient 10
world it was unthinkable for a father to call his Son “Lord” or “Master.” It was a very patriarchal society. Fathers could not say such a thing to their sons.
The crowd eats it up. Jesus is catching the scribes in their own logic and demonstrating that he is better at the scribal word games than they were, and they were very good at them.
But Jesus in so doing is both angering his opponents to the point that they will kill him and he is attesting to a strange mystery. God, who is greater than all, has become less than many, indeed than all, by suffering and dying upon a cross. Herein lies the very energy of salvation. It was God on that cross, not just another hapless victim of the Roman Empire’s imperial brutality. It was God in that tomb, not just another Jewish peasant, itinerant preacher. It was a man who left that tomb to live and reign to all eternity, and by being both God and a man, Jesus gathered up the whole of humanity and opened heaven and our original gift back up to us.
1. I am lousy at keeping rules and it seems like God has a great number of rules for me to keep. It seems so hopeless, I think I would rather just try to be as happy as I can and forget about this whole rule keeping thing.
2. Not only am I lousy at keeping rules, God is really complex and I find that much of what he says is very hard to understand. I am a simple person, can’t we just do this simply? Do we really need to get much past kindergarten with God?
3. Even when I keep it simple, God doesn’t make much sense. How can I love him? He is so far away, so big, so terrifying. If I make him lovable, he doesn’t look much like God anymore. If I look at him as God, I find I have to look for a hiding place instead. I am supposed to love him with my whole heart, mind, body and strength? I cannot even focus long enough to get the crossword done!
4. When I look closely at the people I think are so great, the heroes and saints, I find they all have feet of clay. Nobody it seems gets this life thing right.
5. So what! Does any of this matter? I am tempted to think that this whole world is just meaningless and pointless. What does it matter if thousands die of starvation today? What does it matter if I die today? Does it only matter to me? Does my life mean as little to the universe as the lives of those starving people in Africa or Asia mean to me? The little world I have concocted for myself seems so small.
1. God’s rules are indeed designed to crush us, but that is only part of the story. having shown us our sin, they are also the very witness to the redemption of God. The ancient Israelites were also enjoined to keep a rule when they brought a lamb and God forgave their sins. The goal of the rules is not our despair, but our rescue.
2. Indeed the workings of God are complex and they tax our human minds, but God does not give any multiple choice tests or establish some conceptual threshold which me must meet to enjoy his favor. At the same time, understanding is a very good thing which strengthens faith and relationship with God. Jesus was smart and he teaches us too. He exegetes the Father (John 1) and he helps us think more clearly.
3. Sometimes simply to trust is the smartest course. God does not simply command us to love, but in Christ loving us, he creates the love he seeks. The outpoured Holy Spirit engenders the love which loves God with the whole person. It is not your human ability to love which God measures, but his own loving action.
4. True, Jesus has not stopped collecting sinners, but that is the good news too. There is room for us sinners. Even the scribes, for all their hard work, only got close. Baptism, on the other hand, opens the door and ushers us in.
5. And thus, as one who is united to God in the person of Christ, I am important to this cosmos, because the cosmos is His creation. I am important to God, because Jesus has shed his blood for me. That was no symbol on the cross, it was God. David’s son is greater than David because before David was, He Is!
1. You are not far from the Kingdom (That the Holy Spirit would move the hearer to a life of faithful service and love.)
This sermon is also playing a little on the fact that in many congregations this is also celebrated as All Saints Day.
Jesus is in a tense conversation with the scribes and Pharisees of his day when, out of the blue, one of them almost stumbles on the truth. This should be no surprise. After all, they were handling God’s Word and that they might have actually read and understood it is not a surprising thing. What is more, it is generally known that the Gospel’s estimation of the Pharisees probably reflects something of the growing antipathy of the later first century Jewish community toward the Christian movement. The Pharisees of the second half the first century were the ones who led the charge against the Christians in many respects. It appears that there were some who were willing to think and listen to Jesus at the beginning. Not all the Pharisees and Scribes were always against him. (Nicodemus is another example.)
Jesus tells this fellow that he is really close to the kingdom of God. He says that because the man observes that loving neighbor is far more important than sacrifices and offerings. For the preacher, this might be an occasion to a little romp through Scripture to see what Jesus means. The prophets are particularly rich in this. Amos 5, particularly at the end of 12
the chapter, portrays God as loathing the sacrifices and worship of a people who do not know mercy and justice. Hosea 6:6 is a famous passage in which God expressly says that he does not desire sacrifice but mercy and justice shown in covenantal love.
Jesus of course picks up on this in several places. He quotes the Hosea text in Matthew 9 as he heals the paralytic man and calls Levi from his tax collection booth. When his attention paid to these men is questioned, his response is about mercy and love shown. But also consider his words about helping a child and how that is helping him and the One who sent him. Consider also Paul’s descriptions of the community at the end of Galatians, Ephesians and several of his letters. We are to restore the sinner gently, we are to love one another, we are show acts of kindness and mercy to the fallen and the needy. I Corinthians 13 seems to be a high point in this. Peter Leithart, a contemporary Presbyterian theologian, longs for a day when Protestants are proclaiming “faith without works is dead!” just as much as they proclaim “justification by faith.” Is he longing to be close to the kingdom when he says that?
For the congregation in 21st century America, we can easily look down the street and sniff at the Methodist or Baptist or Catholic and assume that our prayer are somehow more acceptable because they are spoken in a proper understanding of Law and Gospel or justification by faith. But Jesus sees through a very different lens. The congregation which shuts out the world and is pure may be missing the point terribly. Jesus says that this enemy scribe, this Pharisee, is close because he sees this critical connection. The kingdom is not about rectitude of worship or doctrine, but the loving mercy which God has shown us and is now showing through us.
The preacher will want to have at a ready the many things which your congregation is engaged in which are showing that mercy. Don’t just tell them what is wrong, but let them recast/re-understand what is already happening and point them to the presence of Christ in all of this. Proclaim the nearness of Christ who has taken on humanity and all its fraility and borne it to a cross, suffering, and death. Point them to the resurrected Jesus who is found in the little child whom we welcome to our preschool or the elementary students who are using the back-packs we filled for the local school or the family who has something to eat today because we support the local food bank, etc.
2. A Cosmic Moment (Epistle: That the Spirit of God would orient the life of the hearer around the Cosmically significant moment in time in which Christ died and rose again.)
This sermon speaks to the congregation which has bought the seductive line of the American Evangelical anti-intellectualism. While God does not demand understanding from us in order to enjoy his favor, the mind which uses that truth to become intellectually lazy is turning its back upon an important gift from God. It is a little like noticing that God at times heals people miraculously so we miserly won’t spend any 13
money on health care for our family. It is abusing both the message of the miracle and ignoring medicine, a gift from God.
The ancient people were not intellectually foolish or simple. They were just as smart as we are and in some ways perhaps smarter. The Jewish people of old asked a question about the temple which we might well ask today. How does a goat or a lamb, sacrificed on an altar, take away my sins? That doesn’t make sense. Killing some animal does not make me a better human being!
The writer to the Hebrews picks up on that question, he says, “you are right!” it was not the lamb or the slaughtered goat that made you better, it is the one who stood behind that lamb or goat, it is Jesus himself. For when Jesus died on that cross he is not just another human being. He is the master of all, the Lord of the universe, God who hung suspended between heaven and earth as a sacrifice for all time.
That has a great cosmic significance for the one who trusts God. It re-orients the whole of one’s life. It changes everything. For the people to whom this letter was addressed, it probably meant that they could not go back to their old ways as priests in Judaism with all the benefits that they were used to as priests. We will want to ask what it means for us.
Surely, as the writer to the Hebrews will say in the next chapter – let us not stop meeting together as some have done. The fact that this sacrament we share at this altar crosses time and space and puts us at the foot of that cosmically significant cross is one of the life – orienting facets of just who Jesus is.
But of course there are many more: Because Jesus is who he is, we might just want to pay particular attention to what he says. Because Jesus is who he is, we see sin differently, our selves differently, our neighbors differently. We watch the news differently. Our lives are placed into an orbit around this Sun, instead of the tiny little universe which we might otherwise inhabit in which we are center of that picture.
The preacher will want to preach this not as a restrictive world, but a far more expansive world. To have Jesus as the organizing principle of life is not less life or less lively, but it is far more life, far more lively.