We have been studying
the letter to the Hebrews for the last several weeks, and we come this
morning to the 10th chapter. If you missed any of the preceding
Sunday's, there might be some references in this text that will seem
rather obscure or odd. But rather than repeat my sermons from the
last several weeks to get us all onto the same page, what I'd like to do
is simply read the text, and if there is something that seems a little
odd or confusing, you can just say "Huh?".
that: "Huh?". OK, alright, you've got the
idea. I'll start reading from the 10th chapter, verses 19 through
Therefore, my friends,
since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,
Huh? There we go, OK.
One of the big stumbling blocks for
modern day people is all of this discussion about the blood. You
know, the old gospel tunes -- there's power in the blood. Saved by
the blood. Washed in the blood. And we find that rather
odd. After awhile it begins to sound like coming to church is
nothing but a chainsaw massacre gory movie, with all this emphasis on
the blood. But ancient people would have had no such problem in
hearing this and in reading it. Because blood sacrifice was a
common fact of life. And not just in Judaism, but in all
traditions. Animals were sacrificed for fertile crops, as well as
to seek favor among the gods, or forgiveness of the sins.
The author, then, is simply using the
images and language common to their experience. And when those
images and such language is foreign to us, then it becomes a stumbling
block, we have difficulty understanding the text. That's one of
the reasons that I don't particularly care for that language, and try to
avoid it whenever possible. But because it is so central to the
gospel story, you cannot avoid it entirely. But we can seek to
understand what the intent of that kind of language is. And
perhaps reinterpret it using more modern metaphors that would make more
sense in this time and in our context.
The point of this author, as I have
already discussed, is simply that Jesus is that sacrificed goat who's
blood was used on the Day of Atonement for the sins of the nation.
And so the author's claim is that by this blood, or the sacrifice of
Jesus, we are cleansed in order to enter into this sanctuary of
God. To use a more modern analogy, we'd say that Jesus has bought
the ticket. Has paid the admission price. Has obtained the
VISA that we need to enter into God's country. Whatever metaphor
works for you. And that's all the author means.
Removing this text from that context of
blood sacrifice, and the blood of Jesus has no meaning any more.
So it's really not about the blood, it's about being made ready to enter
into God's sanctuary. To come into the presence of God with the
right state of mind. Having that confidence because of Christ that
we are worthy to stand in the presence of the divine.
So we continue reading:
the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that
is, through his flesh),
Are you used to describing curtains as
the flesh? And if you know your geography of temples, of the
ancient temple or the tent or tabernacle, then you know (we talked about
this last week) that there was an inner 'holy of holies' where only the
High Priest could enter, on one day of the year. And that was
divided from the rest of the sanctuary by a curtain. And if you
remember your gospel story, in the crucifixion, that curtain is torn in
It's not necessary to understand that
as a literal event to understand the metaphor, the meaning of that --
that now the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, that presence of God, is
made available to all people. That we all have access into that
place where we can be in that presence.
It's almost as if this author has
entered into that space and everywhere he looks he sees something that
reminds him of Jesus. The sacrificed goat. The
scapegoat that we talked about last Sunday. The curtain.
The High Priest, etc.
So continuing on:
since we have a great priest over the house of God,
Maybe that one is a little clearer to
understand, which of course, here, the author is simply making the case
that Jesus is not the same as the High Priest who presides over the
temple, but he is much more than that. Presiding over the heavenly
temple, the house of God. In sum, then, the author offers to us,
in Christ, an alternative to the established religious order of that
day. And the message of the author is that the old system is not
working anymore, and so here is an alternative.
In the old system, only the High Priest
could enter that inner sanctum, that holy of holies. And in this
new faith, all can enter in, can be in that presence of God. In
the old system one had to seek forgiveness every year. And in this
new understanding, that forgiveness is given once and for all. In
the old system, the blood sacrifice was essential. And in that new
system, Christ has put an end to all such sacrifice.
Now again, as I pointed out last
Sunday, this is not about Christ vs Judaism. It's about an old
religion vs a new religion. And old way vs a new and living
way. About a doctrine of set beliefs vs faith in a
relationship. And you can be a Christian and still adhere to that
old, limited understanding. And you can be Jewish and follow the
new, liberated understanding. So we shouldn't make this in those
kinds of terms, of one faith vs another.
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.
Is that one clear? A reference to
baptism, yeah, that we understand. And then the author is
combining that with the sprinkling of the blood that makes us
And then, finally:
us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he
who has promised is faithful. 24And let us
consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,
Huh? Do you hear what he's saying
here? How do we provoke one another to love, and good
neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging
one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
If this doesn't generate a big
"Huh?", I think you're not paying attention. Because
I've not a clue (well, actually, I will in a bit J),
but this just doesn't make sense.
Now, I have made my case that Hebrews
was written against the backdrop of the destruction of the temple.
Now whether that was about to happen, or had just happened, or maybe had
happened 20, 30, 40 years before this was written (we do not know), and
in the end it's really irrelevant because the destruction of the temple
is simply a symbol of a much larger collapse of the dominant religious
establishment for the audience to whom this work is written. And
so the author makes the case of how Christ offers everything that
religious institution offered, and more.
But that was 2,000 years ago. How
does the collapse of an ancient religious institution make any
difference for us? Where is the relevance?
Well, let's think about our world for a
second. Do we see the collapse of institutions around us?
And I'm not talking here about Duck football, sad as that may be (that's
another story). The religious right thinks the family as an
institution is collapsing. Well, perhaps, they've got a point
there. I think it's more evident that the religious right as a
force in American politics is collapsing (thank you Jesus). Much
has been made of the collapse of the mainline church as a dominant force
in American culture. And that certainly is the case.
David Korten, who was here last
evening, spoke to a crowd of well over 400 people, nearly a packed
house, came back this morning to speak to our Prime-Time class on the
spiritual implications of what he was talking about. He has
written a book, The Great Turning -- From Empire to Earth
Community. He was here on a speaking tour sponsored by the
Environmental Law Worldwide Alliance, better known as ELAW.
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and others sponsored the presentation
Its point is that we are about to see
the collapse of world empires in general, and specifically of the
American empire. He thinks that collapse will be brought about by
First of all, peak oil. The idea
that sometime in the next decade or two or three, we will reach a peak
in oil production and then it will begin declining, creating an enormous
spike in the price of oil and all kinds of economic
Secondly, climate change. We've
talked about that before with Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth,
and all the destruction that will cause.
Third, the collapse of the dollar,
which will force dramatic changes in U.S. economic policies and trade
relations. Now I don't pretend to know much about that, so if you
want to know something about it, you'd have to read the book.
Any one of these 3 things would have a
dramatic impact upon us, our society, and our daily lives. And he
says the combination of the 3 is a perfect storm. Will have
profound implications for us.
We could also speak of the possible
collapse of the education system. Of the healthcare system.
Of the safety net. And so on and so forth. My point is
simply that our time may not be so different than the time in which this
text was written, some 2,000 years ago. And we are facing
collapses of all kinds of institutions around us.
So, what wisdom might we gain from this
ancient text, from Hebrews, for a time such as this? Three things,
that follows in the text, if you follow along you'll see there are 3
sentences that each begin with "Let us":
First of all, the importance of
faith. The author writes "Let us approach God with a true
heart in full assurance of faith". John Cobb was my primary
mentor in my theological studies in seminary at Claremont. Cobb
contends that the biggest failure of the progressive church is to have
no consensus on the doctrine of God. We're pretty clear on the God
we do not believe in -- the old man in the sky with a flowing
white beard who sits up there and pulls all the strings. We don't
believe in that God. But we're less clear on the God we do believe
in. And that lack of clarity and consensus has been detrimental to
the church and is one of the reasons why the mainline church is in
Because we have not made clear why God
matters in today's world, nor have provided convincing reasons for
believing in God, we have lost a couple of generations. And Cobb
says that the modern worldview, that's so important in understanding
this decline, is predominantly a 'mechanistic' one. Reality is
understood as simply matter in motion. What is ultimately real is
the matter, the 'stuff', things. That's how we think of the world,
in terms of how those things relate to one another. And in that
worldview, we see the earth as simply a collection of matter that has no
value until we do something to it or with it. Until we take the
oil out of the ground, until we cut down the tree and make something
useful out of it.
In such a worldview, then, God remains
outside of the world. God is something that acts externally on
that matter. Sets matter in motion. But is essentially apart
from the world, separate from it. Cobb's view is that that
worldview is destroying us. We have to change that view, we have
to change our understanding of God if we are to have any hope.
The fundamental conviction of Christian
faith is that there is something greater than ourselves that is worthy
of worship. And that something is the divine. It's not an
external force, separate from the universe, but rather a force that is
contained within all things, even as it is greater than all
things. Because the spark of the divine is in all things, all
things have intrinsic value and are not merely inert, lifeless
matter. The implication of such a worldview which sees God as an
intrinsic part of all things is precisely what we need to save us from
ourselves. Faith in the God that is intimately connected to our
world is critical in our time.
And so Cobb says 'we have never needed
Christ as much as we need Christ today'.
Second, the importance of hope.
"Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope", the author
writes. What struck me about David Korten's presentation last
night, as he talked about the destructive habits of our world, was his
hope. The central thesis of his book is that we are on the cusp of
a great turning, when we will espouse the ways of empire for the ways of
earth community. And he named three principle values which he
believes will be the driving force behind this turning:
- First, people before profits.
- Second, spiritual values above
- Third, international cooperation
instead of international domination.
When someone asked him how he could be
so hopeful in light of all the problems in the world, he answered:
"We human beings have the ability to choose our future".
As our consciousness awakens to the reality of the choices before us, he
is confident we will make the right choices.
When Paulina and I were down on the
campus as USC and ran into Barack Obama speaking at a rally, we heard
him make pretty much the same point. That we are a people driven
ultimately not by fear, but by hope. Our hope for a better world,
for a kinder and greater world for all people. And that hope
brings out the best in people, where fear brings out the worst in
people. Because of our faith, and the promises of God, we can
choose to live in hope rather than fear.
Third, the importance of love and
good deeds. I love this fascinating phrase, that we have to
'provoke' one another. Well, we're good at that J.
The author goes on to say we have to provoke one another to love and
My first thought was, something is lost
in the translation. I went back and looked at the Greek, and
discovered that the Greek word here can also be translated as
"pester". Well, that's a big help! We'll pester
one another until we love each other!
I thought maybe it's a paradoxical
riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of
logic. What is the sound of 1 hand clapping? Where does
white go when the snow melts? If a politician is speaking in the
forest and nobody is there to hear him, will he make any sense?
Provoking love doesn't
compute. So we have to think outside of the box. How do we
get others to love? To do good deeds?
The author goes on to say 'encouraging
one another all the more as you see the day approaching'. In other
words, this is not a casual, theoretical question, there is a real sense
of urgency. And that's precisely the point of David Korten -- we
don't have a lot of time to make this choice. The choice of life
is not just for us, it's for our children and our children's
children. And like John Cobb, and this is what I loved about
Korten in just the little bit of familiar I just gained from his work,
is the importance he places on spiritual values and on the image of God
that is so crucial to the whole issue.
If we see God as the one who is in
control of everything, why worry? You know, everything is the way
it's supposed to be, God will make it all work out. Thus Cobb is
not shy of saying that when he talks to groups about the importance of
our image of God and this understanding of God in the worldview, that he
is literally trying to save the world.
And that's why I think the author says
we have to provoke one another to love and good deeds -- because it
really is dependent upon us. What we do makes the
difference. We have to say to people: WAKE UP! That
day is coming when we truly will destroy life as we know it if we do not
change, and it will not be God's doing, we will have done it to
And so we need to encourage one
another, to provoke one another, to love and good deeds. Being
kind to our neighbors and foreigners and even loving our enemies is not
optional. It is essential in this world if we are to
Living an ethic of love really does
make a difference. Learning to walk gently on this earth, caring
for creation as if our grandchildren's grandchildren depends upon what
we do, because it does. Looking for God in all people and all
things, the divine spark of energy, life, goodness and beauty that
permeates creation is the way of our salvation.
So this Thanksgiving, let us give
thanks to Christ, who has opened for us a new and living way that offers
true hope for the world.
May we find it, and live it.