Friday, April 10, 2009

Sermon for Good Friday: Hebrews 10:19-23

Access to God

I’m naturally a rather shy kind of person, and one of the most difficult things I have to do in my work as a pastor is to visit people I don’t know, or don’t know very well. At the back of my mind the same questions are playing themselves out over and over again: “Am I welcome? Do they really want me to come? Will they like me? Will they really enjoy our visit, or will they just pretend to enjoy it to humour me?”

Probably some of you feel the same way as I do and will recognise the questions I’ve shared. And of course the situation is even more complicated when we’re going to call on someone with whom we have a problem relationship, especially if we’re the ones who are at fault. I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a situation like that I practise my speech carefully to make sure that when the other person opens the door and frowns at me I have the words exactly right!

Let’s explore this a little further. Let’s put ourselves in the situation of a person who has hurt another human being deeply, but is now penitent and wants to do all they can to rebuild the relationship. Naturally, this person feels ashamed and guilty for what they have done, but they also feel anxious and afraid when they contemplate taking the first step toward reconciliation. If this person is wise, they might consider doing two things. First, they might ask someone to be a mediator between them and the person they have offended. Second, they might try to find some way of making amends for the wrong they have done.

When the Old Testament Hebrews approached God, they did both these things: they used a mediator between themselves and God, and they tried to make amends for their sins. The mediator was the priest, and his number one job was to be a go-between, to bring God and the people together. This started right back on Mount Sinai when God gave the people the Ten Commandments; we’re told that the people were so afraid of the thunder and lightning and other signs of God’s presence that they said to Moses “You go talk to him for us, and tell us whatever he says!” This role continued in the priesthood throughout the Old Testament.

The way the people made amends for their sins was to bring a sacrifice to God, usually a goat or a lamb. You brought your sacrifice to the mediator, the priest, and he took it to God and offered it on your behalf, so that your sins could be forgiven. Offering the sacrifice in this way was called ‘Making atonement’.

This idea is right at the heart of our reading from Hebrews today. The teaching of the New Testament is that, like the prodigal son, we human beings have rebelled against our Father’s love, left our home with him and gone off to a far country, where we have lost everything. Our only hope is to come home to God’s house and start again. But how can we come home, after what we have done to him? The answer we find in the entire New Testament is that we come home through Jesus, who is both our great High Priest and also the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Look again at four verses from our Epistle for today, Hebrews 10:19-22:
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary 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 approach 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’s ask this passage two questions: Firstly, ‘What did Jesus do for us on the Cross?’ and secondly, ‘What difference does it make?’

What did Jesus do for us on the Cross? In this reading we can see two great truths that the writer to the Hebrews wants us to know: that Jesus has offered himself as a sacrifice to make a way back to God for us, and that Jesus is the mediator who can bring us into God’s presence again.

Let’s start by thinking about Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. We’ve said that the offering of a sacrifice was a way for the people to make amends to God for their sins. But there was more to it than that. In some of the Old Testament texts there’s a sense that the sacrifice is actually being substituted for the one who offers it. And one of the strangest texts in the Old Testament seems to actually apply that idea to a human being:
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6)
Without exception, the writers of the New Testament saw this passage as referring to Jesus; he is the innocent one who has taken the sins of the whole world on himself, and in some way this suffering of his has healed us.

Let’s remind ourselves of the architecture of the Temple in Jerusalem. Right at the centre of the Temple was the room known as the ‘Holy of Holies’, the one place in the whole Temple where the Presence of God was to be found. The entrance to this room was covered by a thick curtain sixty feet high. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, taking with him the blood of the sacrifices he had just offered for the sins of the people.

The Gospels tell us that when Jesus died, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. This was a dramatic action telling the people very clearly that since the perfect sacrifice had now been offered, there was no longer any need for them to be afraid to come into the presence of God. This is what the writer to the Hebrews has in mind in our scripture for today when he says in verse 19 ‘Therefore, my friends...we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)’ (Hebrews 10:19-20). The perfect sacrifice has been offered; Jesus has made amends on our behalf for all that we have done, and the way is now open for us to come home to God.

But not only does the writer want to show us Jesus as the perfect sacrifice; he also tells us that Jesus is the perfect priest. Now I suggest to you that we in our culture today know very well what the role of a priest is. In industrial disputes we know all about the appointment of an arbitrator, an impartial third person to act as a go-between and to negotiate an agreement between the two sides. We are also familiar with the breakdown of marriage and family relationships and how sometimes a skilled counsellor can come in and sit down with two people who are estranged from each other and bring them back together again. Our culture has many examples of a mediator, an arbitrator, a go-between - in fact, a priest.

We’ve said that the work of an Old Testament priest was to go between God and the people, to speak to God on behalf of the people - mainly by offering sacrifices for them - and also to speak to the people on God’s behalf. But the problem with the Old Testament priests was that they too were sinners like all the rest, and so they themselves needed mediators with God on their own behalf! A perfect priest, a perfect mediator, would need no further go-between; he would be free from sin. Also, he would have to have an obvious connection with both sides, not just one.

The Letter to the Hebrews points out in many places that Jesus fulfils these conditions for us, and so he is the perfect priest. Hebrews 4:14-16 says:
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

This language about priests and sacrifices is strange to us today, and we may well ask ourselves ‘What’s the writer to the Hebrews trying to say here?’ Well, he’s speaking the language his Jewish listeners would understand, but what it boils down to is this: You don’t need to be shy! You can come boldly up to God’s house, knock on the door and be sure that you’ll get a warm welcome. Jesus has made amends for all your sins, and Jesus will be there at the door every time to welcome you and to take you right into the Father’s presence.

And this leads us to the last question we wanted to ask: What difference does the Cross of Jesus make to us? Bill Hybels is the pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, probably the largest church in North America. He is also an internationally-known speaker and author who often travels around the world to conferences and meetings. So you can imagine that Bill Hybels is a very busy man. Nonetheless, on his desk in his office at Willow Creek Community Church is a special direct-line phone. Three people have the number for that phone: his wife Lynne, his son Todd and his daughter Shauna. Everyone else has to go through the secretary, but those three people have immediate access to Bill Hybels. Furthermore, he has assured them that whatever he may be doing when they call, he will always try to make time to talk to them.

This is the difference the Cross of Jesus makes for us. It means we have a direct connection with our heavenly Father; we are guaranteed access at all times. Or, to change the illustration, we have an automatic backstage pass into God’s presence. Sometimes after a musical performance or a play, a few very lucky people are able to obtain a ‘backstage pass’ to actually go and see the great actor or musician. Well, Hebrews tells us that we have such a pass. It has two sides to it: one side is marked ‘faith’ and the other is marked ‘baptism’. You think I’m joking? Look at Hebrews 10:22: ‘Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith’ - that’s the ‘faith’ side of the pass - ‘with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water’ - that’s the ‘baptism’ side of the pass.

This is how you take advantage of what Jesus did for you as the perfect sacrifice and the perfect priest. This is how you come boldly into the Holy Place - in other words, into the presence of God. You do it by being baptised, and by putting your faith in Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord. You need both sides of the pass in order to get in.

Let’s imagine that you open your mail one day and there is a letter from the Queen’s secretary. It says “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth requests the pleasure of your company at a private dinner at Buckingham Palace on June 2nd. All travel arrangements have been made; simply contact British Airways and they will forward your tickets”.

“Wait!” you think, “there must be some mistake! I’m no-one special! I haven’t done anything to deserve this! The Queen must have me mixed up with someone else!” So you call her secretary and express these doubts. “No”, he says, “there’s been no mistake. The Queen isn’t doing this as a reward for anything you may have done. She simply wants to get to know you better. Please pick up your tickets as soon as possible; Her Majesty is looking forward to your company on the 2nd”.

So you pick up the tickets, and on June 1st you wing your way across the Atlantic in the first class section of a British Airways jumbo jet. The next evening you take a taxi to Buckingham Palace. You stop at the gate, and at this point your doubts return in full force. ‘This is absolutely crazy! It has to be a mistake! I’m going to get in there and she’ll realise when she sees me that I’m the wrong person’. However, you manage to quieten your fears; you present your letter of invitation at the gate, and to your amazement the guard smiles at you and says, “Her Majesty is expecting you”.

And so you are ushered into the dining room. The moment has come; this is when she’s going to realise she’s got the wrong person! But it doesn’t happen. What does happen is something that takes you completely by surprise. In the dining room of Buckingham Palace you see a friend you’ve known for years. He comes up to you with a smile and says, “Welcome to Buckingham Palace!” You look at him in amazement and ask, “What are you doing here?” He replies “Didn’t I tell you? The Queen and I have been friends for years. I’ve told her all about you, and she’s anxious to meet you and get acquainted with you. Come over and meet her for yourself”. He takes you by the arm and ushers you over to the table where the Queen is seated; he introduces you to her, she greets you with a smile and invites you to be seated beside her, and for the next hour she plies you with questions about yourself and your life in Edmonton.

At the end of the evening, as you and your friend are leaving, you say to him “Is this for real? Is she really that interested in me?”

“Oh yes”, he assures you. “She’s very interested in you. What’s more, she wants you to come back as often as you want. She has assured me personally that any friend of mine is a friend of hers too. Whenever you want to get back into the Palace to see her, just mention my name; the staff will have instructions to show you straight into her presence”.

And that’s the difference the Cross of Jesus makes to us. Jesus has made amends for all our sins, and he is our Mediator, our friend in heaven who ushers us into God’s presence. So let me close this morning by saying to you: Don’t be shy! Don’t believe that voice in your head that says “God could never welcome me after the things I’ve done” or “I’m no-one special; God wouldn’t be interested in me”. God is interested in you; that’s why Jesus came and gave his life on the Cross for you. So don’t refuse the invitation because of fear or shyness. Rather, remember the words of Hebrews:
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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