Every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God., waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. (Hebrews 10:11-25)
With a single stroke of his pen, the writer to the Hebrews puts an end to the old covenant and its sacrifices. What the priests of the temple offered daily can never take away sins. All the blood of bulls, goats, and lambs, apart from the Blood of God’s Lamb, Jesus Christ, cannot bring forgiveness, life or salvation.
Sins are not something we can bargain over with God; they are not something we can make up for. They are an affront to God’s holiness, an insult to His justice. Our sin crosses the line of God’s commandment. We are revealed by God’s law to be idolators, blasphemers, those who despise God’s Word, who dishonor parents and other authorities, who kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, covet. We do these things by our thoughts, our words, and our actions. We do what we are forbidden and we don’t do what we are commanded.
If God were to act according to His justice, we would be justly barred from His presence. We have no inherent right to it. He would be justified in damning us, in excluding us, in sentencing us to the “everlasting shame and contempt” of which Daniel speaks in the OT reading. But He has promised not to do that, and the sole basis of His promise not to do this is the single, unique, one-time sacrifice of Jesus who offered His life on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.
You and I are modern people. Some would even say “post-modern people.” Our religions are not thick and primitive. We don’t have priests slinging buckets of blood from the slit throats of bulls and goats. Wouldn’t that be something, if you came out of church covered in blood? That much draw some attention to our congregation and make people wonder what was going on here. We don’t offer whole burnt offerings, although the air quality management board might have a thing or two to say about that. We don’t think in terms of blood and sacrifice and atonement. The closest we come, perhaps, is to parade around a crucifix, or raise a chalice and believe we are drinking the blood of Christ which the world sees as nothing more than a cup of sweet wine.
We are modern, sophisticated, scientific people. What the writer to the Hebrews is speaking of hardly crosses our religious radar screens. Priests offering sacrificial blood for sins. It went on every day in the temple of Jerusalem. It would still be going on today if the temple had not been destroyed as Jesus Himself predicted it.
And yet modern though we are, we have a sense, an internal notion that something is deeply wrong. It is not well with our souls. There is a restlessness, an unease, a panic even. You can see it in those apocalyptic movies and all the things that push in end times anxieties. NIne years ago we experienced the Y2K business, that uncomfortable notion that maybe the world actually was going to end that year. We actually held a New Year’s eve service, which we don’t usually do, just to provide a place to park some of that anxiety.
Now, at least some in our day are looking toward 2012. There’s a movie coming out about that. It turns out that the Mayan calendar runs out of steam in the year 2012, and since there aren’t any Mayans to consult as to why, people are thinking that perhaps the world will end in 2012 and the Mayans were somehow in on the big secret that no man can know. Of course, that’s like suggesting that since LSB lists the dates of Easter out to 2050, that the world will end sometime before Easter 2051, when in truth, the editors of the hymnal figured the book would fall apart long before then.
Perhaps you yourself experience a bit of the eschatological anxiety when you say those words at the end of the creed, “and He will come to judge the living and the dead.” And you should feel a bit of that eschatological anxiety, if not a twinge of fear and dread, because to stand before the judgment seat of God is a terrifying thing, and were it not for Christ, it would be a damning and destructive thing. I think many Christians seem to forget that, and think only in terms of how nice it will be when Jesus appears. “Nice” isn’t a word I’d use to describe it. Glorious, yes. Awesome, rightly understood, yes. Yes, there will be acquittal, forgiveness, salvation for all who believe, but those are always in the face of our sins, and it is always frightful to fall into the hands of God. If it’s that way for the justified, how much worse for those who refuse to be justified.
But we approach that Day with confidence, hope, and expectation, mixed with fear, as the baptized believing people of God. Our hearts have been sprinkled by the Word of God, applying the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Our bodies have been washed with pure, living water, the recreative waters of Baptism. You have been washed, like a priest before his service, like a bride before her wedding. You are a priest in Christ’s royal priesthood. Your life as a Christian is a “priesthood,” offering spiritual sacrifices to God in thanksgiving for saving you and the world through the sacrificial blood of Jesus. You are priests offering your bodies as living sacrifices, not for sin but for gratitude and praise.
The writer to the Hebrews has given us three “let us” exhortations, three results of the fact that Christ has died one time for all time to atone for sin, that He died our death and was raised to life triumphant and now, even now as we speak, He is seated on His throne in the full array of our humanity, to exercise His lordship over death and life and all things. Three results, three end-times exhortations for you and me as we live out our lives anticipating the end:
First, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” We have confidence. You know how you generally don’t boldly go where no man has gone before? You step cautiously, carefully. We generally tiptoe where no man has gone before. Christ has gone before us. He has entered the holy place of heaven itself through the curtain of His own flesh. His death on the cross opens the kingdom of heaven as surely as the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom the very moment that Jesus cried “It is finished.” Hear that. Understand that. Believe that. We are approaching the throne of the King of kings as a throne of grace, a place of promised mercy. We are coming to a Judge who was judged for us. And that means confidence. We are not boldly going where no man has gone before when we approach death, the grave, and the final judgement. We are going where Christ has gone before us, and we are going joined to Him.
Second, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” We are banking on a promise, you and I. We are trusting, by the sheer mercy and grace of God, that when this life is over, when this age is over, when the last Day finally comes, we will be numbered among those who rise to everlasting life, who as Daniel depicted it, would shine like the brightness of the heavens. We believe that not because we are good, religious, holy, pious, or Lutheran. But solely on account of the Blood of Jesus shed on the cross, sprinkled by the Word on your heart, poured on you with the water of Baptism. That’s our confession.
This age in which we live views it as unfashionable, restrictive, even “unspiritual” to have a confession, to believe something all together, and to say it all together. It’s all personal, private, individual. The Creed forces us to be corporate. Our hymns force us to sing together, not as many following one lead singer, but all together as one voice, singing what the Spirit has taught us by the Word. The devil, the unbelieving world, your own flesh would have you wobble, try to knock you off your center, dare you not to believe that you are justified for Jesus’ sake. But Christ didn’t hang on a cross for you to be uncertain, wobbly, weak-kneed Christians. You are baptized into Christ. Cling to Him and to the confession of His name. He’s all you’ve got, and He’s all you need to get you through. He is faithful.
Third, “Let us stir one another up to love and to good works.” Interestingly, this is one of the few places in the NT that speaks to church attendance – “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” Even then, for whatever reason, there were those who stopped going to church. And Hebrews reminds each of us that there are corporate reasons for going to church. It’s not just about you. Yes, we speak of receiving the gifts of Christ, of hearing the Word, of receiving the Body and the Blood, of prayer, praise and thanksgiving, and that is all good, right and salutary. But Hebrews would turn our eyes not to ourselves but to the person next to you and behind you and in front of you, and remind you that our presence here together encourages one another to love and to good works. When we are absent from church, we are not only saying to God, “your gifts mean nothing to us today,” but we are saying to each other, “you mean nothing to me today.” When one member is missing, the whole body suffers, just as a hand missing one finger suffers, but it is the finger, not the hand that dies.
The Day is surely drawing near. Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, clothed in our Baptism. The Day is surely drawing near. Let us hold fast to the confession of Christ who is our hope. The Day is surely drawing near. Let us get together around the gifts of Christ to stir each other up to love and good works.
O Jesus Christ, do not delay,
But hasten our salvation;
We often tremble on our way
In fear and tribulation
O hear and grant our fervent plea;
Come, mighty judge, and set us free
From death and every evil. (LSB #508)
In the name of Jesus,