Hebrews 9:11–14 (NRSV)
11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
This weekend is filled with many events. The royals are playing in New York in the World Series for the second year in a row. This is something that amazes me, I can only say that it is obviously an omen for the good things that are on the brink of happening. But major sporting events aside, this weekend is also a very religious time of year, today is All Saints day. For most of us here we do not quite understand what exactly All Saints day is but it is a day set aside to honor all the known and unknown saints that have made significant contributions to the church and to our lives. Tomorrow is another holy day called All Souls day, which is the Christian equivalent of Memorial Day, a day to remember those people that have passed beyond the vail of life into eternity and to praise God for the opportunity to have known them. Yesterday, a day where most children in the community are actually encouraged to take candy from strangers to supply their parents with the necessary sugar to embrace and survive the days leading up to Christmas, is also a very important day. We commonly know it as Halloween, or All Hallows eve, but it is also a significant day in the church because it is a day that marks the beginning of the reformation. It is not surprising that this weekend is so significant. It is a time that we remember what God has done through individuals, and it is also a time to remember the work that continues.
This time of year has often been a struggle for me personally. There is this constant reminder throughout history that although this is a holy time of year for the church, it also has a dark side. When I was younger this time of year was always associated with evil. So as a child wanting to be a good Christian I struggled with participating in the celebrations, but the idea of free candy was enough for me to go along and ask for forgiveness later. But more recently it has become even harder for me, because this is the anniversary of the death of my little sister. For many years Halloween has been my least favorite holiday.
This whole time of year reminded me of the doubts and questions that I have about faith. It reminds me of the fragileness of life and how thin that vail between life and death really is. I still struggle at times. I struggle with grief, with depression, with a view of hopelessness and that everything we do is pointless. Why do I tell you all this? I tell you because living a life with and for Christ is difficult. At times it seems it would be easier to just throw our hands in the air and give up. But then something began to change. I began to sense that there was something more working just beneath the surface. I had this yearning to seek, to find, and suddenly I began to see pinpoints of light begin to shine in the dark.
These feelings, I imagine, are the same type of feelings the first century followers of Christ might have felt. They had this long history of God working in their nation, and then seemingly everything fell apart. They fell from being the light of nations, to living in exile. They return from exile only to become prisoners in their own land. Every so often some light would shine but it seemed that the darkness would overcome. They gathered up in group that would make attempts at explaining why the world was crashing around them and what they could do to improve the situation, but all the while darkness continued to push in on them. So they would push back.
We look at the various religious groups mentioned in scripture and we often judge them. The Pharisees were just legalistic individuals that were blind to the reality of God’s kingdom, the Sadducees were just liberal individuals wanting to keep the institution going to line their own pockets, we could continue on with the list, but the point is they were people feeling the pressures of a rapidly changing era. We look at them, we look at them through the lenses of history but do we learn?
The writer of Hebrews was a man that was intimate with the inner working of the religious community. He knew the theology. He knew the rituals, and the implications and symbolisms that they possessed. This is why many scholars believe that this letter was not written by Paul but by someone of the priestly class. So when the writer of Hebrews speaks about the priests, it is not from the outside but the inside. The priests, the temple, this lifestyle of religiosity was in many ways the only light that people could see, their only hope. They were not a people that could pull out a cell phone and instantly find answers to their questions because Wikipedia had yet to be invented. I did not have the constant news updates that we have today. All they had was their community, and their tradition. We can look at the people of ancient days and say why didn’t you see the light, but they may not have known any better.
The writer of Hebrews, is speaking to the people that were not swayed by the newest things. He is speaking to the people that are grounded in their faith, and have full trust in the institutions that have provided them hope. Today we read in the ninth chapter of Hebrews. In the first ten verses the writer speaks about the place of worship, the significance of that space, and the rituals that happen there. He then says, “But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come.” This is odd wordage. When reading this we are not getting the full effect of what is being said. I do not envy the people that translate the scripture, because how do you translate the idea of emerging hope? That is what the writer is trying to explain. This idea of something different a new era in life with God. This is also why he uses the illustration of the Tent of Meeting used during the exodus instead of the image of the temple, because that symbolism is such that God is not dwelling in a building far away but is camped out right in the middle of the community. Before God was only accessible through the priest in a temple, but now God is with us.
This is the good things that have come, the era of God with us. Similar to the tent that traveled where the people traveled but far greater because there is no separation. The tent, the temple, the very idea of holiness is changing form into something far better and more perfect. God is all around us and in us.
Wait am I just reading into this passage something that is not there? Let us go back a step. The author says, “[Greater] and perfect tent.” I want to look at the word greater for a moment. This term in English we can see as simply better. I just used that term actually, but greater is far greater than what our language can convey. The idea being implied is of greater status, or might. It is a term that speaks of position. When John the Baptist spoke of Jesus he said that the one to come was greater than him, of which he, John, was not worthy to even untie the laces of his sandals. This is the greater that the writer of Hebrews is speaking. Everything that came before is not even worthy of performing the lowest of tasks before the majesty of the one to come. Let us then consider the greatness that John spoke about. John cried out in the wilderness calling all to repent and be baptized. Saying, “I baptize with water but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
This idea of baptism for repentance is much deeper than ritual cleansing. It was the idea that as you are immersed in the waters that the water would carry away all the impurities and that those that repent would be saturated with purity. The ritual of baptism is just a shadow of the greater things of which the writer of Hebrews speaks. The Greater things is God with and in us, we being saturated with the very spirit of God.
God with us that is what the author is telling us. The rituals carry great symbolism but they are empty without Christ, and with Christ they are insignificant. They may help direct us but they are not even worthy of the lowest status. Consider that for a moment, because that is where so many of us get trapped.
We get trapped looking at the shell instead of what is filling the shell. We get trapped fulfilling our interpretations of the law, or what is required to be holy and we miss the reality of what God really wants. We become like the Pharisees and Sadducees of old making vain attempts of trying to change the darkness by pushing back. We settle for the husk instead of the fruit. Jesus does not call us to institutes but he calls us to follow him. He calls us to walk with him, pray with him, and serve with him. He desires to be with us.
I mentioned that often this time of year can be one of the most depressing times for me personally, but that has begun to change. I say this because I do enjoy history so I get excited about considering the lives of the saints. I have looked into the circumstances that various people lived through that lead them to become what we consider great people of faith. I have looked into the lives of people like Saint Francis and Saint Ignatius. I look into their lives because they were strong people of faith that encouraged those that would listen to them to live their faith out in the community. I have studied about the life and ministry of our own traditions founder, George Fox, and I see something very similar. Each of these people that I consider saints show us something profound. They lived through trying times where everything seemed to be going the opposite direction, the world around them seemed to be moving away from God instead of toward Him. Each of these individuals suffered trials of various kinds, and each through the power of the Spirit were bearers of light in the darkness. These saints and many more like them faced the trials, reformed the church, and left a legacy whose ripples continue throughout history.
As I have walked this path of faith, seeking and attempting to find what is happening just beneath the surface I have also had to consider the events of my own life. I have spoken of many instances in my life that have been instrumental in my formation. Those events are not always pleasant. The death of my sister, Candice, sent my life in a spiral. Not many would have been able to see what was going on inside because I got very good at hiding behind the façade I constructed. For a while I rejected all things of God. He could not be real since terrible things happened to such an innocent girl. I realized looking back that as I ran and made choices each of those events, each step I took seemingly away from God was actually leading me back into His arms.
I look back on the lives of the saints, on the lives of the souls, at the reformers, and those that just lived lives of faith, and I see hope. Because there is a greater more perfect tent through which our High Priest is bringing about the good things to come. I look out at the events surrounding us and I see hope. Do I want to live through these trying times? Absolutely not. But this is where we are, this is the time and place that Christ is calling us to follow Him through. This is the era in which God formed and is forming us to serve. Will we rise to the race set before us?
The Pharisees and Sadducees lived in the turmoil of an emerging era and history often sees them as villains unable to see the light. The author of Hebrews challenges us to purify our consciences of dead works and worship the living God. Often I am like those religious leaders devout to the traditions of old, but missing the life that God wants me live. Often I can get caught up in the legalistic based righteousness, and try to push back on those that oppose my ideals. But God has shown this to the dead works of imperfection. God used the pain, He used the sin, and He used the trials to lead me to His grace. It was and is often a painful journey, but I want to be a Friend of God. I want to be a disciple that follows Jesus. He is calling us to a different, and far greater life. A life that is saturated with His very spirit. And that life is a lifestyle that revolves around prayer, worship, and service. It is becoming people that are loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others.
As we enter this time of Open worship, Holy Expectancy, and communion in silence I encourage us all to contemplate the lives of those that have gone before us. Look into those trials that they face and the trials that God has allowed us to face and ask the Spirit to fill the gaps between our understandings and to show us a way forward through the darkness and pain.