By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 7, 2021
Hebrews 9:24–28 (ESV)
24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so 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.
The letter of Hebrews is a letter filled with emotion. As we have read through this letter, have you noticed this? The author is pleading with those that hear the words to consider what, who, and where they are. The author is reminding those within the community of who they were, and who they are. This writer is pleading with those who will listen to recognize and hold on to the truth.
We often look at this letter and we identify key themes; one is Jesus is a priest. If you have not recognized that over the past couple of weeks, then might need to start making coffee again. The other theme that most of us recognize is later in the chapter where the author speaks of faith. Most of us only remember the chapter about faith, the rest of the letter we find strange and repetitive. Well at least I do.
But I have enjoyed going through this letter this year. I have enjoyed it because it has challenged me. I have been a pastor here at Willow Creek for nearly twelve years. This blows my mind a bit, I feel like I am still the new guy in the church and yet I also feel as if I have been here forever. At times we get used to being in one place, in one role, in one group and we forget why we are even there. I feel like I am new because there is so many opportunities that are all around us and it seems as if we have just started the journey. And then there are times where we seem to just continue going through the motions without ever thinking about what it is we are doing.
Twelve years. You might have noticed that I do not normally go into the letters over the past twelve years. I tend to preach in the gospel and leave the letters and the passages in the Old Testament for classes and Bible studies. I tend to do this for one reason, the letters and the Old Testament require a great deal of time, research, and study. There are things going on throughout the letters that we do not necessarily see in the pages of scripture that are influencing what is being said, and if we do not take the time to fully research and study those things, we can use our own culture to fill in the gaps.
This can be done through all of scripture, but I find the letters as being more difficult because these letters are filled with catchy phrases that we love to memorize and unfortunately take out of context. We have all done this, we have all used the writings of Paul and the other apostles to provide some support to our various positions. And we will continue to do this because we are human. We have ideas in our heads and when we see words that support our ideas, we put them out there as proof that we are right.
This is why I tend to shy away from the letters. I love the letters they are some of the most meaningful and encouraging scriptures, but they can also be used to divide and cause injury. They are used in this manner so easily because they were written for similar purposes. They were written to defend one idea over another. They were written to provide encouragement to continue in a way of life, to speak to a misunderstanding, or to highlight abusive behaviors.
The writer of Hebrews is encouraging the community to remain faithful to Christ. This was one of the earliest letters written, and it was written because those that believed were struggling. The early church in many ways resembled the gatherings of the first century synagogue because it was filled with people that emerged out of that lifestyle. The first followers of Christ were ethnic and religious Jews. They were by in large descendants from the tribe of Judah and could trace their heritage back to Israel. There were certain cultural understandings attached to this. The Jewish people have a rich history, both culturally and religiously. They had the greatest temple built to a single deity in all human history, and they were proud of this. Even the disciples of Jesus were proud of who they were and wanted Jesus to affirm their pride.
The thing about pride is it can often be misplaced. They marveled at the temple constructed by their hands and Jesus told them that on the day of the Lord not one stone would be left standing. Their pride was in themselves, not the God who was believed to be dwelling inside.
This pride continued even after the church emerged. The apostles knew that Jesus was greater. They knew that he had the words of life and they followed him. But pride hung Jesus on a cross. Jesus challenged the accepted cultural narrative, he exposed the sin within the religious pride, and that exposure angered the ones that benefited from that system. Their pride was misplaced, and when we misplace honor, we participate in sin.
This pride plagued the early church. We are told that Jesus came first to the Jews, and rightfully so. It is to and through the Jewish people that God made his revelation. God called Abraham. He chose him to be his portion, his people of all the people walking the earth. He chose him, and that choice was made so that through this one nation God could reveal the truth to all people. Why that nation? Why were they chosen? Are they better than everyone else?
The truth of this chosen people is that they were not great in themselves. They were in many ways least. In Genesis we are informed of the fall of humankind. Adam and Eve were deceived in the garden by the shining one that we commonly known as a serpent. I say the shining one, because serpent is a bit misleading. Snakes do not talk, yet Eve had a conversation with it. Adam and Eve’s job was to have dominion over the earth, they were to name and care for the animals and tend to God’s creation. They knew the animals, and yet a snake deceived Eve? She knew this being to be what it was, it was an intelligent being, a being devoted to God’s service, what we would call an angel. She listened to this being because from her experience it should have been speaking truth and assisting them in their divinely appointed work. Yet this being was in rebellion against God and convinced our first parents that to do the work God wanted them to do, they needed something that God was withholding from them.
This is what we all know as the fall of humanity, but that is only part of the story. Later we hear about a man called Noah. Noah was the only righteous man in all the earth. The entire rest of the population was corrupted and lead away from the one true God. And in this story, there is something strange. We are told the sons of God lusted after the daughters of men, and these interactions were what caused God to destroy the earth with a devastating flood. Who were the sons of God? Who were the daughters of men? Why would it matter? Some believe that this is a similar story to that of Adam and Eve. They say that the sons of God were spiritual beings in rebellion against God, and that these beings were giving and filling humanity with knowledge that was causing harm and destruction. And God needed to stop this rebellion so he initiated the flood to prevent greater destruction.
Then there is a third story, the tower of Babel. In this story humanity was inspired to build a tower to reach the heavens, so that they could have access to the divine realm. This prompted God to confuse the languages and scatter the people. In Deuteronomy we are told that God divided the nations among the sons of God. He left the people of the world under the dominion of the spiritual rebels, but chose one people to be his potion, Jacob. It is only after this scattering that Abraham is called to follow God. It is in this divine and spiritual battle over the hearts and minds of the people that God called his people, for one reason. He was going to gain victory over this spiritual rebellion, while reclaiming and restoring humanity to their rightful place.
This rebellion began because those beings were jealous of humanity. God created us to rule over the earth as his representatives. He did not give that task to the beings we know as angels. We were the last beings created, and we were given power over the angels. Some of those beings desired to destroy humanity. They thought if they could get humanity to turn from God, then God would reject and destroy humans. Pride and jealousy cause destruction, sin, and death. But God did not give up on us.
He established his portion through a single man, Abraham. And through this one man he built a nation, and through this nation, God came to dwell among us. But somewhere along the way the story was twisted. Pride reentered the nation. The idea of chosen to assist God in redeeming the world became chosen for other purposes. And that pride distracted from and twisted the truth. Israel exists to redeem humanity.
The community surrounding the writer of Hebrews is caught in this narrative. They want to follow Christ, yet their pride as children of Israel is also extremely attractive. Their heritage is enticing them to come back. They know their history; they know their place within that history. And following Christ is difficult, because the rest of the community around them is urging them to follow a different path.
The writer of Hebrews says, “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” The whole narrative of Christ as priest is focused on how the Old Testament and the cultic practices of the temple are a mere shadow of the reality that is within Christ. Human hands made the temple. Human hands fashioned the altar, the lamp, even the Ark of the Covenant itself. The religious practices of the sacrificial system, although instituted by Moses and one hundred percent part of scripture, were not the full story. They were illustrations that pointed to something more, something greater. The human priesthood in all its honor was still corrupt and filled with sin. It would never fully connect us to God because it was built by and employed men. Every year blood would need to be carried into the holiest place and placed on the altar. Every year this life-giving organ, dedicated only to God within the religious practices of Israel, would be offered to God. It is a symbol that we are not enough. We do not have the power over life and death. We can only offer a symbol and hope for the best. We know we are not enough because the blood is not of our own. It is provided by a spotless, perfect animal. Have we ever really thought about that? The Israelites offered things to God that they had no control over. The perfect animals were offered to God, the creator. They could not use those animals for themselves. Meaning their breeding programs would always contain, imperfect stock, so everything they offered was a blessing provided by God.
Every year, these priests would go into the holy place created by human hands, begging that God would be faithful to his promise, even though humanity failed. Every year. And they knew full well that the system could fail, they had already experienced it. Their history recorded that eighty-three percent of their nation had been completely lost. Ten out of the twelve tribes were totally cut off from a relationship with God within the temple. And even the two tribes left were exiled to Babylon, due to their unfaithfulness. None of the sacrifices made by men could guarantee acceptance before God.
But Christ entered that holy place, not made by the hands of men. He entered heaven itself and appears before God’s very throne for us. I want us to build a true image of this scene. The Ark of the Covenant was in the holiest place of the temple. This Ark is often called the Mercy Seat, but it has another name. It is the footstool of the throne of God. The footstool. The priests within the temple system never fully enter the place of God, they never command the full attention of God, because they are crawling around the place God rests his feet. But Jesus, enters that place human hands have not built. He is on a plain above the footstool, meaning he has full attention and access.
I want us to consider that image. Human priests at the footstool and Jesus standing face to face. Which is greater? This is what pride, jealousy, and sin is doing to us. If Jesus has the Father’s attention face to face, the actions at the footstool are not even seen. They are vain, empty, and powerless. They lack value because there is something greater available. It would be like rummaging through the trash eating the scraps left over from making a Thanksgiving Feast, when you have a place set at the table to enjoy the real thing. The rebellion of the angels, which was passed on to us through our first parents, which grew into the division of the nations and the failing of humanity, were all the result of misplaced pride and honor. It was the wisdom of created beings that causes our own failings. And our attempts of righteousness are like mice skittering around the feet of God. What is our righteousness? It is nothing without the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The author of Hebrews says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so 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.”
Christ took on what we were unable to do on our own. He took our sin, our injustice, our inhumanity. He carried on his shoulders our attempts of righteousness which resulted in an unjust trial, execution, and burial of an innocent man. That is our righteousness, our pride, and our honor. We nailed Jesus to the tree. We do this constantly because in our pride, in our humanly wisdom, we continue to look at the world around us and attempt to make it into our image instead of making it into the world our creator intended. But while we were still sinners. While we were still trapped in the bondage of our best attempts of righteousness, Christ died for us. He took on our judgment so that when we stand before the throne of God, it is Jesus that stands there with and for us. No longer are we rats scurrying around the footstool but we are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God. God does not see the sin that once separated us, God only sees love.
As it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. God loved humanity so much, that he took on the responsibility to bridge that gap, and all that believe in him no longer need to struggle in the bondage of sin, because he has released us to live life with him. Our righteousness is no longer bound to works of the flesh but are freed. We are free to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Christ with others. This is all God wants and desires. Let us now eagerly wait for him, and trust that in Him we have all we truly need.
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