Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
March 25, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
There is nothing else like Jesus’ atonement. I can’t give you any metaphors. I can’t tell you that Jesus’ atonement is like, for example, a sunset. I can’t tell you any stories. I can’t tell you, for example, a story how losing one’s job can feel like Jesus’ atonement. Ironically, Jesus’ atonement- what Jesus did on the cross, and how the cross changed the relationship between human beings and God- is one of the most important aspects of our faith. But it’s also one of the hardest parts of our faith for us to understand. What I hope to do this evening is tell you the story of Jesus’ atonement. Through the lens of the letter to the Hebrews. Then I will offer some suggestions for how we might live our lives in light of this story that has no comparisons.
Hebrews is a letter written to a congregation. A congregation that is struggling. The letter itself feels like you are reading a sermon manuscript. Some commentators believe that Hebrews reads like a sermon manuscript, because the Hebrews congregation had grown weary of Christian life. And the demands of discipleship. It is easy for a congregation to forget tradition in the midst of weariness. By the time we get to Hebrews Chapter 4, it seems as though the congregation has forgotten what Jesus did for them on the cross. Without any metaphors, without telling us a story, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tries to explain to us what happened to Jesus on the cross.
According to our passage, the first thing that Jesus did for us is become our great high priest. Now the term “great high priest” is not a metaphor. In the Old Testament, particularly in Leviticus, high priests were the men appointed by God to offer animal sacrifices so that God might dwell with God’s people again. The priests offered animal sacrifices to ease God’s wrath for sin. The sacrificial system of the Old Testament worked like this. Someone would sin. Say someone lied about how many goats they sold their neighbor. The problem with sin is that sin defiled the temple. The problem with a defiled temple is that God could not dwell in a defiled temple. So God would withdraw from the temple. In order for God to dwell with God’s people again, the high priests would offer animal sacrifices to cleanse the temple. These sacrifices cleansed the temple of both intentional sins (someone lied about how may goats they sold their neighbor) and unintentional sins (someone accidentally ate impure food). Once the temple was clean, God would dwell with God’s people again.
The problem with the old sacrificial system is that it created a never ending cycle of sin, God withdrawing, high priest offering a sacrifice, and God dwelling again. This never ending cycle made it almost impossible for human beings and God to be in relationship with one another. Human beings kept sinning. And God kept withdrawing from them because of their sin. The miracle of Jesus’s atonement, is that it allows human beings, and God, to relate to each other once again. According to the letter to the Hebrews, this miracle came about by Jesus as our great high priest entering into human suffering without entering into human sin.
Verse 15 tells us For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with out weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Think for a moment where in your life you find yourself sinning. These don’t have to be big sins. They can be the time you unfairly blew up a co-worker for not getting his paperwork in to you on time. Once you have that example in your mind, think about what was going on in your life that proceeded you blowing up at your co-worker. Did your mother stopped by unannounced? Did you find out that your child is getting bullied at school? That your granddaughter got a tattoo? I’m not saying that all human sin is a result of human suffering, but I think the temptation to sin is greater when suffering erodes our defenses.
And if relatively everyday examples of human suffering make us more susceptible to sin, image the temptation to sin that Jesus must have felt on the cross. For on the cross, Jesus entered into all types of human suffering- from the everyday suffering we experience as a result of living in an unjust world, to the type of suffering that brings us to our knees and causes us to question the goodness of God.
Now we understand why it is so important for us to have a great high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, who has been tested, yet who did not sin. By standing in solidarity with human suffering, but not human sin, Jesus is able to break the never ending cycle of the old sacrificial system by overcoming the power of sin in our lives. His atonement inaugurates a new covenant where God will relate to God’s people in a new and intimate way. Because of this new covenant, we are able to approach God, and receive mercy and forgiveness during our times of need.
Some of you may be wondering why Jesus had to suffer in order to inaugurate a new covenant between God and the people of God. I think this is a fair question. One of my professors at the seminary asked me if my Christology (my understanding of who Jesus is) would change, if Jesus died in his sleep, instead of on the cross.
This question of the role of suffering in Jesus’ atonement is also a question that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews wrestled with. This part of the letter concludes with, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Because of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, that broke the endless sin cycle between God and the people of God, God and God’s people are relating to each other again. Because of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, we no longer have to worry about our status before God. By standing in solidarity with human suffering, but not human sin, Jesus became the source of our salvation.
So if the atonement is true (which I very much believe it is!) how are we to live our lives in light of Jesus’ atoning death on the cross? I believe that we are to respond to Jesus’s act of self- giving love with love. Love of Jesus and love of neighbor. We can practice love of Jesus, and love of neighbor, through discipleship and living in community.
During Lent, we looked at Mary’s anointment of Jesus’ feet as an example of extravagant discipleship. Mary anointing Jesus’s feet was extravagant because it illustrated the depth of her love for Jesus. She wanted to follow Jesus even when to follow Jesus came at great personal cost to her. Even when Judas mocked her, and questioned her motives. Discipleship-a willingness to follow Jesus wherever he may lead, whatever the cost- is how we show Jesus that we love him. Our discipleship will always pale in comparison to Jesus’ act of self-giving love on the cross- but we do it anyway, in response to the cross.
Another way that we respond to the cross is by living in community. And by “living in community,” I’m not talking about a theoretical community. I’m talking about Bellevue United Presbyterian Church. Now, living in community can be difficult. And scary. And sometimes downright frustrating. Especially where we are talking about a real community made up of real people. Because real communities are made up of real people. And real people are constantly changing. Beloved choir members die. Pastors retire. Student interns graduate. But Jesus’ act of self- giving love teaches us that it is only in community where we can face changes without feeling overwhelmed. Because this community believes that Jesus Christ is the head of our church. While the church community itself is changing, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forevermore. We know this because of the cross- where Jesus’ act of self-giving love broke sins’ power over our past, present, and future. Before we celebrate the resurrection on Sunday, we take a moment to reflect on Jesus’ act of self-giving love, and how we might respond in love in our own lives, and in the life of our community. An act of love that breaks the power of sin and death, so that we are free to love Jesus, and love our community.