Once and For All

Scripture:  Hebrews 10: 11-14; 19-25

We live in an era of startling technological development.   I grew up surrounded by technological innovations that my parents did not have, and now that I am the parent all of that technology is now woefully obsolete.   A good example of this is the evolution of home video.   Before 1977 going to a theater that happened to be showing it was the only reliable way to watch a movie, and if someone missed a TV program the only way they would ever see if is they were lucky enough to catch it during summer re-runs.  However, that changed in 1977 with the release of the VCR to the US market.  My parents were actually early adopters of the VCR buying one in 1979 for $600, which is the equivalent of about $1,200 today.  At the time blank tapes were $25 each.  At the time recording movies off of TV was the best option because while VHS tapes began getting released in the late 1970’s and early 1980s they cost $100.  Over time the cost came down and video rental stores flourished throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  However, by the late 1990s VHS was being replaced by DVDs which were cheaper to produce and provided more storage.  The first movies released on DVD came out in 1997.  By 2006, they dominated home video because that was the last year that a major studio release was put out on VHS.   While we still have our favorite movies on discs, my kids rarely watch a DVD these days.  Instead they are more likely to watch on demand streaming services like Netflix or Disney+, and they are even more likely to forgo traditional media all together to watch their favorite streamers and vlogers on YouTube.

One of the debates that futurists love to have is that by time my kids are adults if physical media will even be a thing.  Will there still be a demand for new DVDs that people can possess or will everything move to a digital medium?   The idea of not being able to have a physical copy of my favorite movies seems odd to me, but I imagine that is not the case for people younger than me so who knows.  In our era of technological development, it seems the only constant is that something new is coming.  As soon as a technology starts to gain prominence in the marketplace, upstarts come along in an attempt to supplant it, make it obsolete, and become the next new thing.  I suppose that is how it has always been isn’t it?  In recent decades the time it takes for something to be obsolete has become a lot shorter, but throughout human history we have consistently looked to innovate, push the envelope, and change the paradigm in a way that makes the way it used to be done obsolete.

This morning’s scripture from Hebrews makes a claim that in the first century would have been so outrageously bold it would have been seen as insane.  Even to this day, the claim of Hebrews and this morning’s scripture can be viewed as controversial.  The claim made by Hebrews is that Jesus makes all other religions obsolete.  The audacious claim of Hebrews is that Jesus, and Jesus alone, once and for all reunites people with their Creator.

Outside of Revelation Hebrews might be the most difficult book in the New Testament for us to tackle for several reasons.  We do not know who wrote it and while we get some clues we do not know a lot about the audience.  We know the audience has a Jewish background and were likely second generation Christians.  As such it seems not quite all of the beliefs and doctrines from the original missionaries were passed down fully or correctly, which is why Hebrews was written in the first place.   Hebrews is written to be a long argument about how Jesus is the messiah that consistently builds to its main points.  One of the reasons why it can be difficult for us to fully connect with the book of Hebrews is because the two main points are firmly steeped in the first century religious experience which is different from our own.  The climax of the argument that Hebrews has been building to is found in this morning’s scripture.   Jesus is both the high priest and the sacrifice that reunites us with God, as verse 12 states: “But when this priest had offered of all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”

Because Hebrews was written to an audience of a Jewish background, the argument is made from a Hebrew perspective.  However, the argument is about how Jesus completely redefines religious understanding of the day.  In both the Jewish and the pagan religions of the Greco-Roman world priests who functioned as intermediaries between the people and the divine was the standard.   The way that priests connected the people to the divine was by making sacrifices on their behalf.   The Essential argument of Hebrews is that Jesus makes this system obsolete by being the ultimate priest and the ultimate sacrifice.

In the ancient world sacrifices served two purposes.  The first was to give thanks to the divine by offering a sacrifice as a way to express gratitude.  The second was a penalty for sin.  As the author of Hebrews lays out in chapter 5: “Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”   Hebrews points out that the sacrifices made for sins do not erase our sins, they were symbolic substitute.   Hebrews offers up that it is Jesus who serves as the ultimate and final high priest because Jesus is able to fully unite us with God in a way that no other priest can.   Other areas of scripture reinforce this claim.   For instance, the gospel of John records Jesus as saying “I am the vine; you are the branches. . . As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”

Not only does Jesus connect us to God the Father unlike any other priest has ever been able to do so, the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf does more than just represent the punishment for our sins, it erases them.   Jesus, the high priest, by the sacrifice of his own blood, obtained eternal redemption for all who claim him.  Again, other areas of scripture make the same claim.  1 John 4:10 states it clearly, “This is love:  Not that we love God but he loved us, and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

These two points that Hebrews spends most of its space to make that Jesus brings us to God as both the ultimate high priest and ultimate sacrifice reach their conclusion in the second half of this morning’s scripture when the author of Hebrews wrote: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a since heart and with full assurance that faith brings.”

Before Jesus in the ancient world, the closest people could get to the divine was by giving a sacrifice to a priest to make on their behalf.   Yet, this morning’s scripture makes the claim that because of Jesus we can draw near to God.  We can have assurance that God hears our prayers, that God forgives our trespasses, and that God leads us in love and good deeds.   This was a revolutionary thought that completely upended the religious understanding of the time.    I realize what was revolutionary two millennia ago is now commonplace.   The idea that Jesus forgives our sins, reconciles us with God, and connects us with our creator is foundational doctrine of Christianity.  I realize that we have spent the better part of ten minutes unpacking a scripture that states what a good many of you already believe, but there is a good reason for that.   The author of Hebrews declared that the old system of priests and sacrifices had been made obsolete.  It was a revolutionary concept then, and it is still a revolutionary concept today that we need to be reminded of.

Because the message of this morning’s scripture is such a core and essential part of Christian belief we can begin to take it for granted.  We can lose sight of how incredible the good news of Jesus Christ is.   Again, we believe that because of Jesus we no longer have to worry about death because we can have an assurance to the core of our being that the penalty of sin has been paid and we are forever forgiven.   Because of Jesus God is no longer a distant, abstract being that we can only interact with in the faintest of ways by having someone else burn our sacrifices, but instead we can experience God.   We can know and be grounded in the everlasting love of our creator.  These are truly amazing beliefs that perhaps should impact and shape our world daily.  These are beliefs that should power a vibrant, deep faith based in an ever growing connection with God as we draw ever near to him.   However, we run the risk of the opposite happening.

If the good news is not regularly drawing us closer and closer to God, then we run the risk of being only a cultural Christian.  We might be a Christian in name, and we know a belief in grace is in there somewhere but that is about it.  Addressing this issue is precisely why Hebrews was written in the first place.  The audience of Hebrews were second generation Christians, they had been taught the good news of Jesus but it did not have much of an impact in their daily life.   The whole point of Hebrews is to clearly instruct the original audience on how amazing and revolutionary grace is so that they will live a life changed by grace.   This is why this morning’s scripture ends with an urging to not give up worshipping together.

When we worship together we regularly remind ourselves of the good news of Jesus.  We remind ourselves of grace and God’s love in the songs we sing, we testify to God’s goodness in how God has answered our prayers, and we give the Spirit room to draw us closer to God as we hear the scriptures read.  Worshipping regularly together keeps the revolutionary good news in the forefront of our minds and hearts so that we can continually grow in grace and draw closer to God.  Without that regular interaction with fellow believers then we are less likely to let the good news of Jesus daily impact and shape our lives.  If that happens long enough then the life changing good news becomes background dogma and little else.

This is unfortunately not an abstract concept but something that is happening.  A study from last year found that 40% of people who identify as evangelical attend church once a year or less.   We can see evidence of that lack of attendance all around us in how priorities are in the wrong spot.   As followers of Jesus what should cause us the most concern is there are people who do not know Jesus, and there are people suffering in need of someone to show them Christ-like compassion.  These are the issues that we should get fired up and motivated about.  Yet over the next couple of months one of the dominant religious messages we will see will not have much do with our hearts breaking for the lost or reaching to being the hands of Jesus to the marginalized.  Instead, many of us are more likely to see social media posts or hear opinions that decry the use of “happy holidays” instead of saying “merry Christmas.”  When the reality of the good news is not front and center in our hearts and minds, then our focus often end up out of alignment.

This morning’s scripture is a powerful reminder that Jesus, once and for all, reconciled us with God, forgave sins for all time, and brings about eternal life.  That is truth that will never ever be made obsolete because Jesus has already won the final victory.  May we not take the truth of grace, the good news of Jesus Christ, for granted.   May we make it a priority in our own lives to gather together and we make it a priority to draw close to God.   May we be quick to share the good news, may we invite others to experience the good news.  May it be priority in our lives to let the world know that they are loved, they are forgiven, and the answers their hearts desperately seeks can be found in Jesus once and for all.

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