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Provoking Good

Sermon - 11/19/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Hebrews 10:19-25

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?".

Let's practice that:  "Huh?".  OK, alright, you've got the idea.  I'll start reading from the 10th chapter, verses 19 through 25:

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:

 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh),

Huh?

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 two.

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:

 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God,

Huh?  

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.

Continuing on:

 22let 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 clean.  

And then, finally:

 23Let 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 deeds?  Continuing:

 25not 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 last night.  

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 three things:  

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 calamity.  

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 decline.

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:

  1. First, people before profits.
  2. Second, spiritual values above fiscal values.
  3. 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 good deeds.

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 ourselves.

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 survive.  

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.

 


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