Travelling confidently in the landscape
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”
17 then he adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 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. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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. (Hebrews 10:11-25 ESV)
The writer to the Hebrews in our Second Reading draws on the worship imagery and theology of the Levitical priesthood, the sacrifices – remember that parts of the temple were an abattoir with its atmosphere of blood and bodies – and the architecture of the temple precincts with the Holy of Holies, the Holy Place, the altar of burnt offerings all to remind the followers of Jesus that they can have confidence like a priest who knew what rituals to do and what to wear to come into the presence of God. The Jews could imagine what was happening – and the Gentiles less so – as they could only go so far as the Court of the Gentiles – the outer ‘suburbs’ in comparison to the Holy of Holies but what the priests did wasn’t a secret – if they did their jobs properly and faithfully then God would be dwelling with his people to bless them. Only authorised priests, prepared and trained as God had instructed could perform the rituals – and now the writer to the Hebrews says that the followers of Jesus are like them – in the presence of God because of Jesus. Jesus, the true great high priest has fulfilled everything to make it possible for us to regularly, spiritually come right into the presence of God.
The whole landscape, atmosphere, reality here is about the holiness of God – that God shields himself from sin because if he comes into its presence ‘unshielded’, so to speak, then sin is destroyed. The holiness of God is unique to him and anything he touches can be holy but it must be prepared and cleaned. This landscape or reality people often find hard remembering, understanding, accepting because it makes God very much ‘other’ – not our toy or genie or plaything – and it makes us responsible for sin and evil. But that is the foundational landscape of the Bible and explains why God comes ‘shielded’ in the person of Jesus – and even to die for us.
Jesus is the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Now, today, he, having risen, personally gives himself to us through bread and wine for forgiveness, healing, and a strengthening of our faith. Those in Christ have been sprinkled clean – baptism – and while we will have bad consciences, we can receive forgiveness and strength to live better tomorrow. And those Jesus authorises to speak publicly in his name bring Law and Gospel – bring God’s Word as interpreted by the cross – to people so that they may die to sin and live to righteousness. And like eating nutritious food and doing exercise builds us physically so regularly encountering Jesus builds us up in faith and hope – usually imperceptibly – as we can become more confident that God is faithful. And together we then can encourage each other in discipleship – how we live our faith at home, with friends or colleagues, at work, as citizens of both country and the planet – and there is more than enough to do following Jesus in these ways!
The point is that people can have confidence following Jesus – which can seem incongruous when many Christians, at times, feel that they are just hanging in there! What sort of confidence does Jesus give? The confidence that comes with access rather than arrogance. Christians can come close to God in the correct landscape or reality – we are still sinners and God is still gracious. This confidence – that we are and can be forgiven – shapes our relationship with God and our responses to those around us – all sinners themselves. Hopefully we do not become arrogant – holier-than-thou – thinking that our closeness to God, our church going, our efforts and discipleship make it that God wants to be close to us! Remembering that we approach God in repentance and live in daily repentance – daily returning to our baptism – is what builds our confidence that God is not make-believe and we are not deluded. Our confidence is anchored in God’s Word and what he says through it.
The Greek word for ‘confidence’ in the political world referred to the fact that a person was a full citizen and therefore could speak and vote publicly. Slaves and foreigners couldn’t speak ‘confidently’ to be heard and listened to. The Greek word in private relationships had the idea of candour – that the words to be said were worth hearing – so a friend was one who would speak the truth even if the other didn’t want to hear – and thus the friend had confidence he’d be heard.
Confidence in the Bible links to words spoken – plainly – openly – and prayers made – confident that they’d be heard and answered. So the Christian has confidence to come close to God in Jesus’ name – to hear words and speak words – always remembering the holiness landscape.
One danger that can befall followers of Jesus is that Jesus becomes ‘warm and cuddly’ – and Lutherans who emphasise grace so much are in particular danger of making God into our image – of fairness, of political correctness, equality, of whatever else we think he should be. We may say ‘grace’ ‘grace’ – and yes, God is gracious – but really say it as an excuse for us not to struggle with our sin or be obedient to his Word (‘that’s ok, God will forgive me!’). The danger is that we ‘pick and choose’ God’s Word that we like whereas we need to understand all of it coherently through the lens of the cross. For Lutherans, Jesus on his cross – King of kings and Lord of lords – is the starting point of theology because this is the event we have to come to grips with – and by the light of an empty tomb, we see a holy God rescuing his sinful people!
Christian confidence is always anchored outside of ourselves – because God is faithful, the cross and empty tomb cannot be disproven or destroyed, Baptism is a new birth, Holy Communion is the antidote against death and the medicine of immortality, and God’s Word can be understood and trusted and followed as we encounter Jesus and he says, ‘Follow me’.
- Hebrews 10:11 - 25