Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 18, 2018
Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25 Commentary
Hebrews 10 may please both those who proclaim and those hear the Lectionary texts from Hebrews who feel like saying, “Enough of all that talk about Jesus and blood already. Just tell us what to do.” After all, after almost endlessly teaching us about Jesus and his work, this week’s text finally teaches us what it means to follow Jesus.
Not, however, before returning for what may seem like the 100th time to Hebrews’ theme of Jesus’ superiority to Jewish religious practices. So why does the Preacher go back over the same ground yet again? Perhaps partly because his readers are considering risking their well-being by giving up what God has given them in Christ. They’re thinking about walking away from Jesus and back to their old faith.
To remind his readers of to what they’d be returning, the Preacher notes that Jewish priests had to keep doing the same sacrificial work over and over again. There wasn’t even any place in the old sanctuary for them to sit down and rest from their work because their work was never done.
Yet that’s a problem with religion. You’re never done because you can never do enough. In that sense, Christianity is not a religion. After all, it’s not a way for God’s adopted children to establish a right relationship with God. Of course, God’s people sometimes treat Christianity as a way to make God happy. We sometimes assume you have to think do or say just the right things to connect to God.
As a result, as Will Willimon notes, religion, including a form of Christianity, can be a one-way ticket to fatigue. After all, just when God’s children think we’ve got it figured out, someone comes along and says, “What about this?” Or, “Have you considered that?” Or at about the point the church has worn us out, it comes along and asks, “Will you teach this?” Or “Organize that?” And there we go, off chasing our religious tails again, trying to get right with God.
The Bible calls Jesus’ followers to receive God’s grace with faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible also calls Jesus’ followers to respond to that grace by doing things like praying, loving our enemies and caring for the poor. Yet none of those acts establish a relationship to God. After all, in Jesus Christ, God has already established a loving relationship with God’s people.
So God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t have to stand or run to do anything to connect to God. Since when Jesus “had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,” so can you and I. We can get off the religious treadmill of trying to chase the right beliefs, words and actions.
In verse 19 the Preacher says since God has already graciously connected himself to us, we dare do what no faithful Jew would ever dare to. We can enter “the Most Holy Place” that is the symbol of God’s presence among God’s people. In the older Testament’s time, only the High Priest dared to do that, and he dared do it only once a year.
Now, however, says Hebrews’ Preacher, God’s sons and daughters don’t have to be afraid of God. Of course, because God is so holy and majestic, we don’t approach the Lord casually or carelessly. Yet because of Christ’s finished work, we can let God draw us near to himself.
It can be easy to forget what an amazing claim the Preacher makes here. He’s insisting God’s people don’t have to avoid the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of everything that is created. Because of Christ’s finished work, we can draw close to God the way children approach their loving parent.
Hebrews’ Preacher offers several ways God draws God’s adopted sons and daughters close to himself. Of course, if Jesus’ followers don’t look closely enough at why we do them, they may seem like just more steps on the religious treadmill.
On top of that, some non-Christians often do some of the same things to which God summons God’s people. That’s the second reason why Hebrews’ author returns again in our chapter to Jesus’ identity and work. Hebrews’ Preacher wants to remind Christians that our doing of those things are responses to God’s connecting us to himself in Jesus Christ.
The Preacher says God invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to draw near to God as those who know God has baptized and forgiven them. Of course, baptism is only a visible sign that God has graciously forgiven you and me so that for Jesus’ sake we’re acceptable to God.
On top of that, God invites Jesus’ followers to draw near to God clinging to God’s promises. Of course, Jesus has already waited more than 2,000 years to keep his promise to return. What verse 25 calls “the Day,” Christ’s second coming, still hasn’t happened.
Yet since Jesus is faithful, his adopted brothers and sisters can trust his promises to usher in a day when justice will flow down like a roaring waterfall. When death and pain will die. When no politicians or voters will scream at or even lecture each other. When everyone will have a place to live and enough food to eat. God’s people don’t know when God will finally keep all of those promises. But we cling tenaciously to our hope for what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
God invites God’s adopted children to draw near to God with what verse 24 calls “love and good deeds.” Those who proclaim and hear Hebrews 10 may be surprised to think of that not as, first of all, a way to get close to each other, but as a way to get close to God. Yet the Preacher insists that when we do things like love our enemies and care for creation, God somehow draws us closer to himself.
Yet we naturally prefer to let someone else do that sometimes-hard work. So Hebrews’ Preacher challenges us to strongly encourage each other to do things like mentor vulnerable children, share the gospel, feed the hungry, and pray for our leaders.
Finally, however, God invites God’s children to draw near to God by what verse 25 calls “meeting together.” While we usually think of that as meaning we should go to church, the Preacher doesn’t actually say that. He simply calls Christians to meet together. So he may have in mind Christians meeting together not just for worship, but also for fellowship, food, study and even service.
After all, God has graciously adopted us into God’s family. God has transformed you and me from God’s enemies into God’s children, and from strangers into siblings. So when Christians meet together, we come to a kind of family reunion.
Yet Hebrews’ Preacher insists meeting together is more than that. When we meet together, as Tom Long notes in his commentary on Hebrews* to which I owe many ideas for this Commentary, whether it’s a high mass or a prayer service, whether in a cathedral or house, with hundreds of other Christians or just two, God draws us close to himself.
Yet even preachers understand why some people give up that habit. We get that worshipping by ourselves on a mountain trail can seem far purer than meeting with the motley bunch that shows up in church on Sunday. On top of that, as a colleague notes, “we just get tired in worship and … of worship.”
What’s more, as Long points out, there may be more drama on TV, nicer people at Starbucks and a better view at the beach than in church. And no one in those places will try to twist our arms into giving money, serving on committees or teaching Sunday School.
Yet we profess that when God’s adopted sons and daughters let God draw us near to himself by meeting together, remarkable things happen. We do what we will, by God’s grace, do for all eternity. We practice for that day “When every knee should bow in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.”
Yet when we meet together, especially for worship, God also catches us up in a mysterious heavenly drama. As God draws us near to himself, we’re somehow caught up into the great choir of angels and saints who are also worshiping God. Of course, sometimes you have to squint pretty hard to see that.
*Long, Thomas G. Hebrews. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997.
Please Note: Year C Advent and Christmas Resources are available on CEP.
I once heard about a story that Fred Craddock told about an older man named Will. I no longer remember how I heard the story or in what context Craddock told it. But I recount it here because it speaks so well to the eschatological nature of the worship to which Hebrews 10 summons God’s people.
Craddock told of how when he was a boy, his parents would make his siblings and him dress up every Saturday night. Neighbors would then sit in Craddock’s living room to read the Bible and sing songs like “Bringing in the Sheaves” from old hymnals.
When Craddock asked his mother why they had to do this, she said, “We don’t live close enough to a church actually to attend. But some day we might live close enough to a real church and so for now we’re practicing.”
One neighbor who came every week was a man named Will. Craddock once asked him, “Have you ever been in a real church?” “Hundreds,” was Will’s reply. “What’s it like?” “Well, I’ll tell you,” Will answered. “First off, don’t go by appearances. ‘Cuz sometimes you’ll see some little old white clapboard church up on cinderblocks out in the middle of nowhere and maybe the shutters are sagging a bit and all. But don’t go by that. Because sometimes God disguises his goodness — he hides his best stuff in little old no-account places like that. But you just go inside one of those and you’ll see.”
“See what?” Fred pressed him. “Well, when you look up at the ceiling, you’ll see it’s a deep, deep blue. And the stars shine and the angels sing and . . . well, you’ll just have to see for yourself some day, young man!”
Fred and his family attended Will’s funeral in one of those little churches God had cleverly “disguised.” But when Fred got inside, he was disappointed. It was nothing like what Will had promised. The paint was peeling. No stars shone. No angels on display.
But then, remembers Craddock, the worship service started. The choir began singing and swaying. The congregation joined in and all of a sudden, somewhere in the middle of all that singing and swaying, Fred looked up. “And the ceiling was blue. And the stars were shining. And ministries of angels sang Will to his rest.”
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