Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, November 12, 2006
The Letter to the Hebrews is mysterious. We don’t know who wrote it or who it was too. It’s not really a letter. It’s more a collection of sermons. It is clear that the audience has known persecution because of their faith. It also seems clear that some - perhaps many - of them are giving up and giving in. But just how the Letter to the Hebrews spoke with power is not clear anymore. We read its long arguments about sacrifice and blood and priests and Melchizedek and we are lost. Then Bernice asks on Wednesday: “Can you tell me what it means when we say that Jesus died to take away our sins?” Then these five verses of Hebrews become so crucial, so critical, so vitally important. Maybe it’s just possible that if we host them with care and listen with open minds and wait for a living, breathing word from God ... well, we may receive the gift of an answer. Can there be any greater question to ask of the Christian faith than this? This is the biggest claim, the most outrageous and impossible claim of the gospel. It is more impossible than the virgin birth, more outrageous than all the miracles combined, bigger than the resurrection - well, at least as big as the resurrection. Jesus died to bear our sins? Really? What does that mean? It is not only Bernice’s question. It is our question. It is our neighbour’s question. And when visitors wander in, drawn by the promise of a media invitation and a website and the description of the kind of church that just might interest them, they will ask us too. They will say, what does it mean when you say “Jesus died to take away our sins.” This is important. It is important for Bernice. She has been waiting a long time for an answer, a satisfactory answer. After all, its not right to be saying something in hymns and prayers and scriptures and sermons that you are unable to define in a sentence or a paragraph or, well, a sermon. And it is not surprising that Bernice is asking. For a long time now the Protestant tradition that we belong to has been unsure about the language of blood sacrifice and Jesus’ dying for our sins. It is a reflection of our desire to sound reasonable and contemporary and modern. It’s the kind of thing that we would not imagine beginning with when newcomers who’ve been to Wondercafe.ca arrive here for the first time. But we would be wrong to start somewhere else. This is the heart of the matter. This is the meat, the core, the essence of the good news. Bernice asked the right question. She is not the only one who needs to know what it means when we say that Jesus died for our sins. The whole church needs to know and be able to answer when asked. It’s my goal for this sermon - that you will have a reply to Bernice’s question that you find compelling and crucial and wonderful. The preacher of Hebrews loves the metaphor of sacrifice. It is the central image of the entire collection of sermons. In today’s brief text it is put simply. Jesus Christ did not enter an ordinary sanctuary - like this Chapel. He was not an ordinary priest. He did not offer sacrifices over and over again, sabbath after sabbath, with the life blood of some other creature. That would have meant Good Friday every day of history, since the beginning of time. No. Jesus Christ entered the ultimate sanctuary, the real sanctuary, heaven itself - where God resides and where souls are protected, safe and cannot be threatened or hurt or abused anymore. This is strange language to us. We can not fathom having an altar here, designed so that the animal blood will run off neatly into a large vat. The very idea of killing animals in order to somehow expunge guilt and restore relationships is repugnant to us. Besides, the SPCA will be here in a flash and it will be all over the news and it won’t be for the right reasons. We have tried to leave sacrifice behind. The problem is that we have not left sin behind. We imagined that if reason triumphed, if rational thought were allowed the freedom it deserved, that then we would move out of the Dark Ages and be enlightened. Then human reason would lead us ever closer to the end of war and the end of injustice. It would be an age of ever greater progress away from barbarism and brutality and human sin. But there has never been as much barbarism and brutality and human sin in any century of recorded history as there was in the 20th Century. It is too close in our memory. Lest we forget. Lest we forget. The problem of sin did not go away when we became enlightened to the power of human reason. If anything, sin has become more entrenched. Just attend to the news on any day. Sin is big. Sin is the huge gravitational force that pulls humans away from God. Before there are “sins” there is capital ‘S’ Sin. If God is as heavy as the Sun, pulling all objects in towards the light of steadfast love, then Sin is as heavy as the earth, drawing all within its sphere back, away from God. That is how Augustine describes Sin sixteen centuries ago. It hasn’t changed. No one can escape the forces that draw us away from God’s intentions. Greed, pride, sloth, envy, gluttony, lust or wrath - at least one of these seven deadly sins weighs down every person. There is enough evidence of the gravitational power of Sin in a single block of this city to break God’s heart. Which is the reason for the sacrifices served up over and over again. As soon as one sacrifice removes the stain of some sins there are more sins to be expunged. There is no end to it, no end to religions trying to get right with God, offering up sacrifices of life and time and song and cash. There is no end to the sacrificing. It goes on daily. We, too, have sacrificed. It’s called scapegoating. We have placed sins - our sins or the sins of a family or the sins of a neighbourhood or the sins of a company or the sins of a nation on someone, on somebody else. We have been complicit in placing these shared complicated sins on the back of a scapegoat. Someone else or some other community has been left to hold the bag, to take the fall, to wander into the wilderness with the our shared sins on their back. What the preacher to the Hebrews notices is that it doesn’t work. Sacrificing the life of an animal or a person by making it a scapegoat does not put an end to Sin. Sin is far too huge, far too overwhelming, far too potent and vicious and wild to be dealt with by blaming it on someone else. That kind of human sacrifice is never ending. It is a losing cause. It must admit that the power of Sin is greater than anything we can muster to stop it. “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove Sin by the sacrifice of himself.” That is a mouthful. It is the fulcrum, the great turning point, the heart of the matter. This is the reason that the Cross is here, dominating this sanctuary made by human hands. This is the reason that we do not sacrifice any longer, the reason that there is no more need for scapegoats. The huge gravitational force of Sin has been broken. The Age of Sin is over. A new age has begun, an Easter Age after Sin. The death of God’s own Messiah is the final sacrificial death. Good Friday is the one time that this divine sacrifice occurs. On this day God’s own self is offered up as a sacrifice that will restore the creation, restore humanity, restore God’s people to a right relationship - that is, to righteousness - with God. This is the definition of a life that is not lived in Sin. It is lived with God in Christ. To live within the gravitational power of God is to lose fear, to live in trust and to act knowing that God’s will surely will be done on earth as it is in heaven. To live within the force field of Sin is to live anxiously, not trusting in God’s goodness, afraid to go to the places and people who must surely be ‘hopeless causes’. It is to be terrified that we, too, are hopeless causes. Except that now the power of Sin is not what it used to be. It puts on a great and destructive show. It appears to be on the rise. But for those with eyes to see, the knowledge that Christ has triumphed over Sin creates a remarkable future. Slaves from Africa had no reason to hope for freedom from the forces that enslaved them for generations. Yet they did hope. They knew about the power in the blood of Jesus to save them from their great ordeal. The saving power of the Cross became a staple in black preaching and singing and living. Oppressed and powerless people the world over know that the very heart of the good news is its promise that, in Christ, God has already broken Sin’s power. We live in the miraculous aftermath of that great triumph. This is the good news. We cannot ever imagine that Sin will finally triumph in our politics, in our neighbourhood, in our household, in our own souls. There is no such thing as a hopeless cause, no hopeless sibling, not even a hopeless church. The Cross is the constant reminder that this victory over separation from God has been won. Jesus Christ has carried the weight of all sins, of all separation on behalf of the world. It’s something that only God can do. And God has done it. As anyone can plainly see, the problem is that God’s triumph over Sin is not obvious. If anything the opposite appears to be the case. Our hope that we live after the Age of Sin is not based on the evidence. Our hope is the miraculous gift of God. It cannot be delivered on a platter through the trite promises of feel good preachers. Our hope is that we can have hope, be driven by hope, be known by our hope. The preacher to the Hebrews calls our age an ‘in between’ time, an Age of Hope. We live in between the nightfall of Sin’s reign and the dawning of Christ’s appearance “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him”. I wonder what shape this “eager waiting” takes? After our journey through the Psalms with Lynn and Gerald last weekend, I imagine that our eager waiting for Jesus Christ takes the shape of praise and of lament. Singing joyfully of God’s steadfast love liberates us to honestly and boldly sing our deep ache expecting that God must surely answer. I imagine that the whole life of a congregation of Jesus’ disciples it meant to be known for its “eager waiting”, for it’s daring hope, for it’s honest lament. If I could I would give you this gift of eager waiting right here, right now. To tell you the truth, I long for it too. With you, I find myself eagerly waiting for a life that is eagerly waiting for Christ to come and save. And even as I admit that, I realize that we are already eager, already waiting, already saved and being saved. It is what we mean when we say that Christ died to take away our sins. It means we are saved and that we are being saved. Lest we forget. Lest we forget.