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The Last Scapegoat

Sermon - 11/12/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Hebrews 9:24-28

We have been studying the letter to the Hebrews, which as you know and I said previously, it's not really a letter, it's more of a sermon.  And as I noted last week, it is one of the more if not most difficult texts in the New Testament, save perhaps for the book of Revelation.  Difficult to understand because its frame of reference is so foreign to us.  So I want to lift up three specific things to help us understand this particular text.

First of all, the central image throughout most of the letter of Hebrews is the 'tent of meaning'.  It is described in the story of Exodus, 25th, 26th, and 27th chapters, when God lays out for Moses -- in quite a bit of detail -- the tent that Moses and the people are to build to house the ark of the covenant.  And that tent would later become the model for the temple that is built by Solomon.  And because the author of Hebrews relies so heavily on the tradition of the tent, rather than the temple, some scholars think that's one indication to suggest that he is writing after the temple has been destroyed.  In any event, the entire religious establishment that is built around the tent/temple complex came crashing down with the destruction of that temple near 69/70.

And so Hebrews represents one means to reinterpret God's continued active presence through the covenant with Moses without the earthly abode where God dwells.  And what we need to remember is that the Pharisaic movement that evolved into modern Judaism is the other means by which that covenant has been reinterpreted without the presence of that temple.

Second, on top of that system for mediating between God and humanity, is another layer of Greek philosophy.  This is also critical for the understanding of this text.  The great philosopher Plato taught that there were two realms, represented by heaven and earth.  And that which we see on earth is but a mirror of the more perfect realm in heaven.  And hence the tabernacle, be it tent or temple, mirrors the reality of heaven.

Third, the inner sanctum of this tent/temple complex is the holy of holies that could only be entered on 1 day of the year.  What was that day?  The day of atonement, in Judaism known as Yom Kippur.  On Yom Kippur, the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, is entered by only 1 person -- the high priest.  To offer atonement for the sins of the people.  Now to do that, he first has to be cleansed of his own sins, so he offers the blood of a bull as a sacrifice for his sin and that of his household.  And then he offers the blood of a goat for the sins of the nation -- for all people.  And after he does that, he goes out and lays his hands on a second goat, places all of that sin symbolically on that goat, and then that goat is driven out into the wilderness, as the sins are driven out.  And what do we call that goat?  Scapegoat.  That's where the tradition of scapegoat comes from, from Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

Gwen Hershiser, our worship leader this morning, saw the sermon title when she came to volunteer in the office -- The Last Scapegoat -- and she said "What, we're having a sermon on Donald Rumsfeld?" J.  No, he may be the latest scapegoat, but I doubt if he's the last scapegoat.

I'm referring, of course, to Christ as presented in this text from Hebrews 9, so let me read the text now for you:

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Last Sunday, I refuted the anti-Semitism that is too easily read out of this text, and I also tried to refute the popular author Sam Harris.  This morning I want to refute some of the popular notions of second coming found in this text, and author Sam Harris.  Now, you may think that I have something against Sam Harris.  And you'd be right.  But that's not why I'm coming back to him.

But first of all, let me get to the second coming.  The second coming is a lot like the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.  Or a woman becoming Pope.  Or Hillary Clinton becoming president of the United States.  It ain't gonna happen.  Well, the President, on the other hand, said that Nancy Pelosi was never going to be Speaker of the House, and look what happened.  So, who knows, maybe it will happen.  Indeed, I fully expect, within my lifetime, to see a woman become president of the United States.

Whereas I understand the second coming of Christ to be wholly and completely mis-interpreted as a yet-to-be literal and historical event, when it was meant to be understood (by this author at least -- and by the way, the author of Hebrews is the only New Testament author who uses the term 'second' in relationship to the coming of Christ) as a symbolic event, not a literal event.  And as such, it is a very powerful symbol, that if rightly understood and applied could literally bring salvation to the world.

But before I explain that, I want to talk a little bit about the second appearance of Sam Harris.  Harris, you may know, is an atheist antagonist of all things religious.  Get used to hearing his name, because he's young, and he's now a hot published author and you're going to hear about him a lot.  He's popular in the press.  No sooner had the echoes of my sermon died down last Sunday than I picked up my Newsweek this week, with it's cover literally the American flag wrapped around the cross.  Their election day coverage reflecting on the role of religion in politics.  And there is Sam Harris, helpfully explaining for us why religion and politics don't mix.  Now I would probably agree with Mr. Harris' politics, but I completely disagree with his religion.

He notes that over 1/2 of the American population believes that the cosmos was created just 6,000 years ago, and that is about 1,000 years after the Sumerians invented glue.  Now that only makes sense, because after all, God needed something to hold the cosmos together, so someone had to invent glue first J.  And also that many of these people believe that dinosaurs were preserved by twos on Noah's ark, and than human beings were created out of dirt with divine breath in a garden with a talking snake.  And he says "This is embarrassing".  But it's also largely harmless.

On the other hand, that 44% of Americans are confident that Jesus will return to earth sometime in the next 50 years is anything but harmless, he says, it is a terrible liability which provides believers "with absolutely no incentive to build a sustainable civilization".  And he also cites such things as religious opposition to stem-cell research and civil unions of same-sex couples as two other examples of illogical, irrational interference of religion in politics.

I don't know where Harris gets his statistics, but I do not dispute them.  In fact, I share his alarm even while I completely reject his conclusion, which I quote:  "Religion is the one area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give good evidence and valid arguments in defense of their strongly held beliefs.  And yet these beliefs greatly determine what they live for, what they will die for, and all to often what they will kill for.  Consequently, we are living in a world in which millions of grown men and women can rationalize the violent sacrifice of their own children by recourse to fairly tales.  And in which millions of Christians hope soon to be raptured into the stratosphere by Jesus so that they can safely enjoy a sacred genocide that will inaugurate the end of human history.  Are infatuation with religious myths poses a tremendous danger, and it is not a danger for which more religious faith is a remedy".

Well, I wrote a response to Mr. Harris, sent it in to Newsweek, I have no hope of it seeing the light of day there, so I thought I'd share it here:

"To the Editor:

What I find so infuriating about Sam Harris is not the irrationality of the religious views he lampoons, but his apparent ignorance of the rational religious views he ignores.  Yes, millions of Christians do believe in a literal second coming of Christ, but millions of dedicated Christians also reject such thinking.

One does not have to reject faith altogether in order to see the danger of bad theology.  Indeed, the conclusion of Harris -- that more religious faith is no remedy to this danger -- is precisely wrong.  Would he advocate bad economic policies be replaced with no economic policies?  

The answer to dangerous religion is not no religion, but health religion which promotes care for the earth, peace over war, and the common good of all living things.  Instead of treating all religious leaders as intellectual imbeciles, Harris should look to the thousands of pastors, Rabbis, monks and Imams who teach non-violence as a religious way of life, who welcome stem-cell research as a tool of divine healing, and who bless same-sex unions as a gift of sacred love.

We are not hard to find for anyone willing to look beyond their own prejudices against religion". [Applause from congregation].

Don't hold your breath -- I would be pleased, but very surprised, if they publish it.

Well, here's my point in case you missed it:  the problem is not religious belief, the problem is religious misconception.  And therefore, the solution is not un-belief (which I don't think is possible anyway), but to challenge those misconceptions and provide a religious vision which not only does all of those good things Harris advocates from an ethic based on reason, but also goes deeper to an ethic based on love and values based in the ultimate reality of the universe which we know as God.  That's what we're about.

I've spoken previously and repeatedly about the misconceptions around such notions as rapture and end-times, and you can refer back to them on our web site, sermons from the Spring of 2004, there's several there.

I want to focus instead this morning on only 1 misconception as reflected in this text, the second coming.  Now, recall with me then those 5 elements (there's probably more) of Yom Kippur:

  1. High Priest

  2. Holy of Holies

  3. Bull

  4. Goat to sacrifice

  5. Scapegoat (2 different goats)

The author of Hebrews is using this tradition as he re-interprets its meaning.  Hence, we can expect to find those elements of this retelling of the tradition.  And so what do we read (scripture is in red, comments are in black):

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one [there's Plato, right?], but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf [that's the function of the high priest, to mediate between the people and God]. 25Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest [there's the first element] enters the Holy Place [the second element] year after year with blood that is not his own [obviously both a reference to the blood of the animals as well as to the blood of Christ.  But there is a more specific reference there, in highlighting 'his own', I think the author has in mind the blood of the bull that is given for the sin of the high priest]; 26for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many [there you find the offering of the goat for the sins of the nation], will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

So we have the High Priest, the Holy of Holies, the Bull, and the Sacrificed Goat.  But where's the Scapegoat?  I studied this, and I thought its got to be here, I like things to be wrapped up nice and neat.  And I couldn't find it, and that perplexed me.  It wasn't until I put this fully into the context of Yom Kippur that I finally got it.

Imagine yourself traveling to Jerusalem for the holidays, back in those days.  There's a big crowd, everyone goes.  There's a huge crowd, and maybe if you're lucky you get to see some of the ritual.  You see the parade of priests leading the animals, the bull and two goats, to the temple.  And you see them cast lots (this is all described in Exodus), and choose one of the two goats (not the lucky one) who is taken then with the bull and violently, but quickly, the suffering is over and the blood is collected.  And the High Priest then takes that blood into the inner sanctum of the temple.  

And you wait with the crowd.  You wait quietly.  You wait anxiously.  You wait eagerly.  Until at last, the priest emerges and places his hands upon the remaining goat, and mutters the words that you cannot hear but you know instinctively what he's doing -- he's placing the sins of the nation upon that second goat.  And then with a loud yell he shoos the goat out of the temple, and the roar of the crowd chases the terrified goat out of the temple, out of the city, and into the wilderness.  And as that goat runs free, you too feel new freedom and the release of your sins that disappear on the horizon.

Here again, the conclusion:

so Christ, having been offered once [the sacrificed goat] to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time [the scapegoat], not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. 

The scapegoat is there.  And so what I'm suggesting to you is this notion of second coming in this text is not about some future event at all.  Rather, it is an allusion to that second goat.  Only there are not two Jesus' -- one that was sacrificed and then one who emerges from the tomb -- it is the same Jesus who now appears a second time to save those eagerly waiting for the scapegoat. 

Never heard this before, right?  That's because it's never been given before, this kind of interpretation of the second coming, at least not that I can find.  So maybe I'm going out on a limb here, but as I studied this it was the only thing that made sense.

And so Jesus appears the second time as the scapegoat, only the author makes clear that this is once and for all.  Jesus is the last and only scapegoat we will ever need, for our sin has been removed by the grace of God forever.

I began by suggesting that this is a very powerful symbol that can, contrary to the beliefs of Sam Harris about religion, bring true salvation to the world.  How?

If we truly accept Christ as the last scapegoat, then we can move from a world of blaming one another, to accepting one another, and no longer will we need to drive anyone out of our communities and our nation.  If we truly accept Christ as the last scapegoat, then we will cease to sacrifice the innocence and to project our guilt upon our enemies.  If Christ is the last scapegoat, then we will cease to kill for our beliefs, and to send our nation's youth to die for our political aims.  If Christ is the last scapegoat, we will learn that the true power of God is shown in love and measured in forgiveness.  If Christ is the last scapegoat, then the only blood spilled that will bring peace has already been spilled once and for all.  And never again.

The altar of sacrifice is unneeded, and unwelcome.

We eagerly wait for Christ to come into our lives, to come into our world, to come into our hearts.


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