November 15, 2015 Hebrews 10: 11-15, 19-25
Rev. Catherine Purves
I had forgotten how hard it is to keep things clean when you have a two year old running around. A few weeks ago we babysat our granddaughter Isla while her parents were in Phoenix on a job interview. In the process of trying to keep her clean, I washed my hands so many times that I had to apply hand cream several times a day to keep my skin from falling off. You change a diaper, you wash your hands. You serve up lunch, you wash your hands. You wipe her hands several times during lunch. Then you wash her face. Then you wipe off the table. Then you clean the floor. Then she gets out the markers. You wash her hands, your hands, the table. We somehow got red marker on both of our shirts so those needed to be cleaned. Then there was another diaper change. Soon it was time for a snack. More hand, face, table, floor washing. Repeat for dinner. And then it was bath time. How do you keep a two year old clean?
How do any of us get clean, and stay clean, really clean? This has always been a problem and a challenge for people of faith. It seems as if the more aware we are of the holiness of God, the more our own sin and our lack of holiness makes us feel unclean. How can we enter the presence of the Most High God when no amount of handwashing makes us feel clean enough?
Our reading from the letter to the Hebrews acknowledges the Old Testament answer to that problem as it describes the elaborate sacrificial system that was central to the Temple worship in Jerusalem. “Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices…” Lambs and goats, calves and birds, rams and bulls were all sacrificed by the priests in order to cleanse the people and restore their relationship with God. Day after day after day the sacrifices were made.
And on one day a year, the Day of Atonement, the high priest went behind the veil in the Temple to the Holy of Holies. Of course, first he cleansed himself thoroughly. Then the sacrifices were offered, and the blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat, the place of atonement. A live goat was chosen, and the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the goat and confess over it all of the sins of the people. This ‘scapegoat’ would bear the sins of the people and it would be released into the wilderness, and the sins of the people would be taken away.
It was such a complicated ritual, and you might be wondering why we are delving back into such ancient and rather gruesome history on this happy day as we are preparing to baptize a baby. It is because of our need to be cleansed and to stay clean. It is because we are trapped in that same web of systemic sin, sin that we cannot avoid or escape through perpetual washings, or sacrifices, or increased efforts or resolutions. Day after day we are aware that we cannot keep our conscience clean, we cannot make ourselves holy. As Hebrews insists, “Every priest stands … at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”
“But,” (and thank goodness there is a ‘but’), “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God,’… For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” This Letter to the Hebrews is proclaiming a new and better, once for all time sacrifice that will really cleanse us and make us clean. It is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In his sacrifice, as in ancient times, there is the offering of a life, the same shedding of blood, the same bearing of our sins. Again there is a high priest who penetrates the veil, who intercedes for the people, and who restores our relationship with God. This time, the high priest is the very Son of God.
And all of this results in our cleansing, not through its repetition day after day, year after year, but once and for all, so that we are no longer captive to sin and death, but free to enter the presence of our Holy God. Christ has provided a “new and living way” for us to return to God through his sacrifice. So, as Hebrews says, “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
The reality and power of Christ’s sacrifice is what we are about to celebrate through the sprinkling of the waters of baptism. Can you see how revolutionary this is? The day after day cycle of sin and guilt and sacrifice, the perpetual washings that never really keep us clean, that system, that predicament, that mindset has been replaced and superseded by a new act of God in Jesus Christ. Everything is changed now. Today, through the symbol of water sprinkled on the head of little Greyson, we are affirming that Christ’s sacrifice was for him. It was offered for all time, a single sacrifice that cleanses him and that will bear away his sins now and for the rest of his life.
Of course, we all know that Greyson will eventually turn into a two year old, and life will get very messy. There will be lots of wiping and washing and bathing. I recommend, Marie, that you stock up on hand lotion. But don’t let all of that necessary cleansing cause you to forget that Greyson is, from this day forward, clean and claimed and loved by Jesus Christ. The one and only sacrifice for his sins was made 2,000 years ago.
Nevertheless, life in this world is a dirty business. How can we help Greyson, and how can we ourselves live in terms of the truth of our baptism? Because, for something that has been defeated, sin certainly seems to be alive and well and thriving in this mucky world. Though our hearts have been sprinkled clean, though we have been washed in the pure water of baptism, sin is all around us, and we are caught up in it, in spite of our baptism. That is why Christ does not simply call us and baptize us as individuals; he forms us into a community of faith, the church.
In the sacrament of baptism we acknowledge that we cannot make ourselves clean. Only Christ can do that, and he has done that. But the sacrament also welcomes us into fellowship with him in the church, because we must support one another. We must live and work together in this unclean world. So, the Letter to the Hebrews also says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering… And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together,… but encouraging one another…”
After his baptism, Greyson will be part of a new and bigger family, the family of the church. We will all be here to love and encourage and challenge and teach and support him as he grows in faith. And he, in his turn, will be here for others in this, his family, the church. That complex, committed relationship that we have with one another in Christ is also what is sealed and celebrated in the sacrament of baptism.
So, let us come to the baptismal font with rejoicing. It is just a sprinkling of water, but through the sacrifice of Christ, our great high priest, we are made clean and we are brought into the presence of Almighty God. Once and for all Jesus bore our sins, and he now continues to intercede for us at the right hand of the Father. What does that mean for little Greyson? It means that the promise of forgiveness is real for him. One reason why we gather together week after week, year after year in the church, is so that we can be reminded of that promise and encouraged to persevere in the power of that promise, that we are made clean in Jesus Christ.
Life is messy for all of us. And whether you’re two or twenty or fifty or seventy you really can’t keep yourself clean. But the good news is that we do have a Savior, a great high priest, who has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has sprinkled our hearts clean and washed us with the pure waters of baptism, so that we are clean, truly clean, in him.