As I noted in a 2018 commentary on this week’s Epistolary Lesson, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is “bloody.” In fact, it’s so bloody that citizens of the already figuratively blood-soaked 21st century may be uncomfortable with it. But perhaps humanity needed such a radical solution because its problem was so deeply-ingrained.
Few pieces of baggage are more difficult to lug through life than a guilty conscience. It hounds some people during nearly all of their waking hours. A guilty conscience negatively impacts our interactions and relationships with people. A guilty conscience is perhaps especially aggressive when we face the person we’ve treated so badly.
A woman I’ll call Mildred suffered almost unimaginable systematic abuse at the hands of family members and family friends when she was an adolescent. Because it helped prevent her from integrating a healthy sense of and desire for intimacy, she later had numerous affairs.
While God graciously gifted Mildred with some peace about the men who’d so cruelly abused her, she lived with a guilty conscience about her unfaithfulness. It was almost always within arm’s reach for Mildred. It took very little for that guilty conscience to reawaken and torment her.
Of course, some of our contemporaries seem to lack any conscience. In his book, Wonder Boy: Barry Minkow, the Kid Who Swindled Wall Street, Daniel Akst refers to psycho/sociopaths as people who can “act without regard to conscience.” “Psychopaths are promiscuous,” he adds, “and tend to reproduce themselves. There is evidence that their proportion in society is growing.”
Of course, the attempted murder of conscience sometimes becomes ingrained within society or culture. In her memoir about the Soviet Union’s early years, Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam notes how “the word ‘conscience’ … had gone out of ordinary use – it was not current in newspapers, books or in the schools since its function had been taken over … by ‘class feeling’.”
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might explore with our hearers the state of conscience in their own 21st century context. Since an active conscience seems to be an integral part of good mental health, we might ask how well it’s functioning in our own society. How does it sometimes manifest itself in both healthy and unhealthy ways? How do even Christians sometimes try to suppress our conscience?
Our sins against God and each other naturally give us much about which to feel guilty. Hebrews 9:9 reminds God’s dearly beloved people that true Old Testament believers understood that the sacrificial system couldn’t clear their consciences. They offered the sacrifices, after all, only for sins they accidentally committed. The priests offered no atonement for deliberate sins.
Thankfully and graciously, then, Christ’s death also cleansed our consciences (14). Christians still sin, sometimes accidentally, but all too often quite deliberately. We repeatedly must grieve our sin and confess it to God. Even our conscience, as God’s children confess, accuses us of having grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments.
However, God’s people know that Christ has brought us peace with God. For Jesus’ sake, God won’t let Christians’ sin eternally separate us from the Lord. Jesus’ has paid for both our “accidental” and deliberate sins. He has appeased God’s wrath over Christians’ sins.
Hebrews 9:14’s Preacher celebrates how the “blood of Christ … cleanse[s] our consciences from acts that lead to death.” The Son of God, in other words, let others shed his blood so that the Holy Spirit might purify Christians’ guilty consciences that can be a constant companion for some of us.
But, of course, it’s “bloody business.” This Sunday’s Lectionary Epistle points back to what Christians generally call the bloody, smoky, and noisy “Day of Atonement” that Leviticus 16 describes. On that day Israel’s priest would slaughter both a bull and goat that had been chosen by lots.
He would then sprinkle some blood from both animals in front of and on both the cover of the ark and the atonement cover. The priest would also sprinkle blood in the Tent of Meeting as well as on the altar of burnt offering.
All of the Day of Atonement’s drama and seriousness pointed to the desperate seriousness of peoples’ sins. God commanded the Israelites to offer these sacrifices in order to help them understand how much it would cost to deliver them from their sins.
Yet as Reformed Christians confess in the Heidelberg Catechism, no creature could actually pay for humans’ sins. No goat or calf, after all, can bear the full weight of and release others from God’s wrath regarding sin. To pay for our sins (and cleanse our consciences) God’s adopted sons and daughters need someone who is “truly human and truly righteous, yet more powerful than all creatures, that is, one who is also true God.”
After all, as Hebrews 9:9-10 notes, “the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.”
Those are some reasons why Christians profess that all of the Day of Atonement’s blood, smoke and ritual finally point God’s people ahead to the Messiah. That Day points us to the way God graciously gave Jesus us to set us completely free and make us right with himself.
Jesus Christ entered God’s presence not on the basis of the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood. He was, then, in a real sense, both the High Priest and the sacrifice. Jesus both offered the atoning sacrifice and was the atoning sacrifice. However, he was also the “scapegoat” on whom God laid our sins and then sent out into the “desert” that was death on the cross.
So Christians no longer believe we must sacrifice animals to please God. Jesus is the Lamb of God whom people sacrificed instead of goats and calves. Through his blood, he truly and fully takes away the sins of the world.
Hebrews’ writer reminds his readers in chapter 10:19, “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus.” So God’s dearly beloved people no longer have to go through some religious professional, whether it’s a priest, rabbi, or pastor, to have access to God. Christians no longer need any human being to serve as a kind of mediator, a go-between for Christians with God. For Jesus’ sake, all of God’s deeply beloved sons and daughters can go directly to God, especially in prayer.
Of course, the 20th and 21st century’s violence has made some Christians reluctant to talk about what theologians call “atonement theory.” That bloodshed makes it important for preachers and teachers to talk carefully about the need for Christ’s blood to be shed.
It’s hard to fully summarize all the ways that Christ’s death by God’s grace saves God’s dearly beloved people. The Bible, in fact, uses other analogies to talk about its saving effects. But faithful biblical preachers and teachers look for ways to also honestly address the role of blood in our salvation that our text raises.
The New Testament Scriptures, after all, insist that the gory death of Jesus Christ takes away his adopted siblings’ hesitance or uncertainty. Because of what Christ has graciously done for God’s beloved children, God’s people have what Hebrews 10:19 calls “confidence” or boldness. As a result, we can “draw near to,” approach God in what 10:22 calls “full assurance of faith.”
At one time God’s people’s approach to God was hesitant and fearful. Now we can be humble and confident as well as joyous. Earlier God constantly warned God’s dearly beloved people to keep their distance. God now invites Jesus’ friends to draw near to God. In the Old Testament only the appointed high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and even then, only once a year. Now Hebrews’ writer urges all Christians to come near God at any time.
Many commentators see this invitation as referring primarily to drawing near to God in prayer. They believe Hebrews 9 means that we can pray to God boldly, in full confidence that God hears and answers our prayers for Jesus’ sake. God’s adopted sons and daughters can now humbly, but also boldly approach God in prayer because God first humbly came to us in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Jon Meacham wrote a biography of President George H.W, Bush entitled, Destiny and Power. In it he recounts an incident in President Bush’s life that haunted him until the day he died.
While he was growing up, Bush was a magnet for other boys. They liked him and felt what Meacham called “protected and secure in his orbit.” But one time Bush stepped out of character and used an anti-Semitic slur to describe a Jewish friend.
The sensitive Bush had a guilty conscience about this sin for the rest of his life. Interviewed by the author seventy-odd years later, “Bush volunteered the story and cried, shaken by guilt over a remark made in the 1930s. He shook his head in wonder over his own insensitivity. ‘Never forgotten it. Never forgotten it.’ (The classmate remained a Bush supporter and friend for many years.”).
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 31, 2021
Hebrews 9:11-14 Commentary