Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 7, 2021
Hebrews 9:24-28 Commentary
Hebrews’ proclaimers as well as our hearers may by now feel a little burned out by Hebrews. That’s the way my colleague Len Vander Zee begins his thoughtful and insightful 2018 commentary on this week’s Epistolary Lesson. Hebrews’ preachers and teachers may feel a bit like investigators at a crime scene that’s so covered with footprints that it’s hard for detective to discern any new prints.
Of course, as Vander Zee also notes, Hebrews’ preacher covers some relatively new ground in chapter 9. Yet we’ve heard most of it before. Hebrews’ readers may feel tired of its talk about the earthly and heavenly sanctuary, as well as Christ’s perfect and complete sacrifice on his adopted siblings’ behalf. So most of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may feel quite familiar.
Verses 24-25, of course, highlight two contrasts between what we sometimes call the “Old” and “New” covenants. Hebrews’ Preacher reminds readers that Israel’s priests entered earthly sanctuaries that were mere “copies of” the heavenly sanctuary. However, the ascended Christ entered God’s presence in the heavenly realm’s heavenly sanctuary.
What’s more, the Preacher adds in this week’s Lesson, Israel’s priests didn’t just enter copies of heaven. They also had to do so repeatedly. Because their sacrifices’ effectiveness was only temporary, they had to offer them over, and over, and over again. The ascended Christ, by contrast, entered the heavenly realm “once for all” (26).
His real rather than symbolic sacrifice was so permanently effective on God’s beloved children’s behalf that he didn’t have to repeat it. But that assertion too may sound much like what Hebrews’ proclaimers have been exploring for weeks.
That’s a reason why Hebrews 9’s proclaimers may find one of Tom Long’s insights about it in his commentary on Hebrews (Hebrews, Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY) particularly helpful. (It’s, by the way, another reason why I think Hebrews’ proclaimers may find that commentary, to which I owe so much for my own CEP Hebrews’ commentaries’ ideas and structure, to be so helpful. A commentary worth the cost of buying it.)
Long writes (100), “We have heard this all before. The Preacher is basically circling back for another view of scenery we have already surveyed. One new and surprising feature, however, appears on the landscape: the announcement that Christ will ‘appear a second time’ (9:28).”
Some Christians, including some preachers and teachers, have historically thought of that appearance as terrifying. We’ve imagined what Long calls “a wrathful and punitive Jesus coming back to kick sinners and take names.”
Some of Jesus’ friends have imagined the reappearing Christ as kind of cosmic, divine Santa Claus who’s coming to give figurative “lumps of coal” to heathens and good gifts to Christians. Some of God’s adopted children have thought that the prospect of the returning Christ should be enough to scare heathens “straight.”
Of course, as Christians profess in the Apostles’ Creed, Christ will someday “appear a second time” (28) to “judge the living and the dead.” Yet Hebrews’ Preacher invites his readers to join him in seeing that as good, not bad news.
He conveys that great news, notes Long, by first asserting some conventional wisdom: everyone “is destined to die once” (27). That doesn’t come as a particular surprise, even to our contemporaries who seem determined to do all we can to postpone that destiny as long as we can. While some followers of “New Age” religions and philosophies hope to return again and again to make things right after they die, most human beings at least strongly suspect we’ll die only once.
In fact, as Long points out, the awareness of human mortality is an ancient one. The Preacher’s contemporaries who were Jews as well as Christians often proclaimed it in their synagogues and churches. Even the Greeks accepted the concept of human mortality. Great but pagan philosophers such as Plato and Plutarch proclaimed it: “Everybody dies.”
Yet while that’s hardly news, to too many people, Jesus’ one-time death is news to at least some of them. He had appeared “at the end of the ages” (26) when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born to Mary. Hebrews’ Preacher insists that Jesus, in fact, appeared precisely in order to “do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” He did that by being “sacrificed once” (28); by dying on the cross one time. While the cause of Jesus’ death was different than most, he died only once, just as human beings do.
Yet Jesus’ first appearance changed everything about Christians’ only “appearance.” Hebrews insists that Jesus’ one-time death changed even death for those who are, by God’s grace, his adopted siblings. Jesus’ death disrupts the ancient rhythm of death followed by punishment.
When, after all, Jesus died, he defeated the power of sin. At Calvary he took “away the sins of many people” (27). When he died, Jesus absorbed God’s judgment on his adopted brothers and sisters’ sin, sins, and sinfulness. His saving death was, in some ways, like a cosmic black hole into which Christians’ deserving of punishment enters but never re-emerges.
As a result, when Jesus “appear[s] a second time,” it will not be to punish God’s beloved people. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson insists that he will “reappear,” instead, to graciously rescue God’s dearly beloved people. When Jesus appears for a second time at the end of measured time, he’ll graciously bringing with him not condemnation of “those who wait for him,” but “salvation” (28).
My colleague Stan Mast, in an earlier commentary on Hebrews 9, insightfully points to the link between Jesus’ reappearance and Israel’s priests’ reappearance from within the Most Holy Place after they’d made atonement for their people by sprinkling blood. He even sees hints of Jesus’ “second appearance” in Luke 1’s account of Zechariah’s reemergence from the Holy Place after offering incense.
When Israel’s High Priests entered the Most Holy Place, the Israelites’ wait was what Mast calls “suspenseful.” They never knew if God would accept the sacrifice on their behalf. Israelites weren’t even sure that the High Priest would survive his meeting with God so that he could reappear before them.
Jesus’ adopted siblings don’t have to worry about whether Jesus will re-emerge from the Fathers’ presence in the heavenly realm. After all, the first time he appeared, his death was, as Long notes, sufficient. His sacrifice was perfect. As a result, Jesus won’t just appear a second time. He’ll also reappear not to “bear sin” (28). He won’t have to, in Long’s evocative language, “pump out the cesspools of iniquity and torment sinners.” Jesus, after all, in his life, but especially in his death overpowered sin.
So when he appears a second time, Jesus will gather his adopted siblings who don’t have to fear his second coming. He will, after all, take to himself and into the new creation those who are faithfully and eagerly “waiting for him” (28).
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s gospel is that Jesus will come again not as an infuriated Judge, but as a merciful Savior. So those who by the grace of God live and die in relationship with him are no longer “destined to die … and after that face judgment.” Those who are still alive when Christ returns, as well as those who have already died are, instead, graciously destined to experience the salvation that is eternal life lived in God’s glorious presence in the new earth and heaven.
In her compelling Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story, Barbara Leaning writes about John Kennedy’s widow’s experienced after she married Aristotle Onassis. Even after her wedding to Mr. Onassis, Mrs. Kennedy Onassis admitted, “‘Sometimes I think I will never be happy again. I try but cannot forget the pain [of President Kennedy’s assignation]. And when I am feeling happy, I am just waiting for its return’ (italics mine).”
After recounting that, Leaning then editorializes, “That last sentence was the key. Though the memory might not actually be before her at a given moment, Jackie, by her own account, was ever anticipating its reappearance (italics mine).”
Those who proclaim and hear Hebrews 9:24-28 might benefit from an examination and proclamation of the stark contrast between Mrs. Kennedy Onassis’ waiting for the reappearance of her pain and Christians’ waiting for the reappearance of Jesus Christ.
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