St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 11th October 2015
Readings – Hebrews 9:19-28; Mark 10:17-31
In the late 19th century there lived an unfortunate gentleman by the name of Pedro Carolino who decided he would write a dictionary of useful words and sayings translated from Portuguese into English for the benefit of his fellow countrymen. There was just one problem with his plan. The said Pedro Carolino knew no English. But, as far as he was concerned, that was no obstacle. He simply took a Portuguese-French phrasebook and translated the French into English with the help of a dictionary.
The result? A little book published in London in 1883 called ‘English as She is Spoke’ which unintentionally has become one of the most celebrated and funniest books ever written. Mark Twain wrote: Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect. Containing such phrases as “to craunch the marmoset” and “he has a good beak” the work remains a classic unequalled to this day.
But what the example of poor Pedro Carolino does show is how difficult it can be to translate concepts and ideas from one culture to another. Fortunately our translators have made a rather better job of turning today’s passage from the original Greek into English, but I think most of us struggle with this passage from Hebrews even in the best translation. In Western culture no-one goes round sprinkling blood on people; the idea that such an act could have a religious significance is completely alien to us; and even should we get to the bottom of what it’s all about, it isn’t obvious how this passage is relevant to us. We seem to be dealing here with a culture that seems far removed from life in the 21st century.
So how do we understand what this passage is all about?
It may be of some help to turn our attention away from Ancient Israel briefly and think about a scene which is rather more familiar to us, if not from actual experience, then certainly from all those crime dramas you see on TV. We’re sitting in the public gallery of a courtroom as the judge reads out the charges against the accused. He comes to the end of the list of charges and then he looks straight at the offender, “How do you plead?” The offender thinks for a moment and then he answers, “Guilty, Your Honour”. But immediately he adds, “I know I’ve done wrong, but I promise to be good from now. You can take my word for this”. How do you think the judge will react?
Well, it’s good to know that the offender recognises his guilt and seems to want to reform. But the principle behind any justice system must be that there is suitable punishment for the crime. If you could simply get off by promising to be good, then law and order would be break down and there would be widespread chaos. No, no matter how contrite the person in the dock might be, the reality is, he has to bear the consequences of his action, either by paying a fine or receiving a sentence.
Now a few months ago we finished our sermon series on the book of Exodus at the summit of Mount Sinai. There the Lord appeared to Moses and gave him the law we now know as the Ten Commandments. Moses’ role was then to go back down the mountain and report the law to the people of Israel gathered below. And what was the people’s response when they heard Moses? Listen carefully to these words from Exodus 24:3:
When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.”
If you think about it, that’s a big commitment the people are making. They are saying that from now on they will obey every single command the Lord has given them, and perfectly carry out His will. So the question is: will they be able to fulfil their promise?
Well, as we saw in the earlier chapters of Exodus, these people of Israel were the ones that the Lord had miraculously rescued out of slavery in the land of Egypt. They had experienced the deliverance of the Passover and been saved through the Red Sea from Pharaoh’s pursuing armies. And how had they responded to all that the Lord had done for them? Almost as soon as they were on the other side, out in the desert, they began to grumble against Moses and the Lord. They showed a remarkable lack of faith and they even began wishing they could return to Egypt.
So although at the foot of Mount Sinai the people of Israel promised to be good, they still had to bear the price for all their lack of trust and their disobedience. Now in a nomadic farming community the most valuable thing you could sacrifice would be a young bull. When the bull was sacrificed, that sacrifice involved the giving up of a precious life so that the relationship between the Lord and the people could be restored. That bull, if you like, paid the sentence that the Israelites deserved for their sin and rebellion.
And why did the people have to be sprinkled with its blood? As a graphic reminder for each and every person there that a life had to be sacrificed on their behalf. Sin, you see, is not a remote, abstract theological concept. It involves real actions, thoughts, words, that have a direct and personal consequence for each and every one of us, and if we want to be restored to a new relationship with God, each one of us must own that sin personally, for ourselves. That is why when Moses proclaimed the words of the law and sprinkled the people, as Hebrews 9:20 says: He said, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep.” It was a reminder both of the cost of their rebellion and the grace that the Lord had shown them in not treating them as their sins deserved.
But of course the blood of a bull could not deal with the sin of the Israelites once and for all. As the subsequent history of the Old Testament shows, despite all their promises, they kept breaking God’s law and turning their back on His mercy. That is why the law went on to lay down detailed and complex rules about many different kinds of sacrifices that had to be offered day by day, year by year. Sacrifice was right at the heart of the ancient Jewish religion and until the destruction of the temple in 70AD it carried on from generation to generation as the very centre of the faith.
And it was out of this same Jewish background of sacrifice that the Hebrew church emerged, to which our letter today was written. Now for a while, the good news of Jesus Christ must have seemed so much more attractive than the perpetual offering of bulls and all these different, complicated sacrifices. But as these new believers came under more and more pressure for their faith, so it became more and more attractive to return to the old ways. After all, for all its faults, the attraction of religion and ritual is that it offers safety and security when times get tough. The only trouble is, as our writer goes on to show, it gives us ceremony and form in place of reality and substance.
Yes, for a while, under the Old Covenant, the Lord was pleased to accept these animal sacrifices. They helped the people of Israel, and they still help us today, to understand more about what it means to be in a right relationship with our Saviour God. But as Hebrews 9:23 tells us all these rituals were only copies of the heavenly things. They provided visual aids which explained the need for sacrifice and they revealed something of the grace and mercy of the Lord, but they could never provide a permanent solution to the problem of our sin and rebellion against God. Indeed their ultimate role was rather to point forward to our need of Jesus Christ and show the reason why He had to come to save us.
So while on the Day of Atonement the High Priest entered the inner sanctuary of the temple on behalf of the people, Jesus entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence (Hebrews 9:24). Just think about that for a moment. Jesus entered heaven itself to appear for us, to be our representative, to plead our case before our Heavenly Father. Even in spite of the fact that just like the people of Israel long ago we so often turn our back on God’s laws, break our promises to be good, and generally go our own way. It would, you have thought, been good reason for God our Heavenly Father to say enough is enough and to permanently bar us from His presence. But instead He sent Jesus to open up the way back to Him, so our relationship with Him could be restored.
And how exactly was Jesus able to do this? Well, on the day of Atonement, as verse 25 tells us, the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own. Here is an imperfect human being offering the imperfect sacrifice of an animal to try and pay the price for his sins and the sins of the people. Whereas, as we have already seen in this sermon series, Jesus Christ comes as the perfect Son of God to offer the perfect sacrifice on our behalf – His very self. That is why for Christians the blood of Christ is so important. It represents the offering up of a perfect life to deal with our imperfection, an act of pure love to deal with all our unloveliness, Jesus taking on Himself the punishment that we ourselves deserved.
That is – to use another piece of jargon – what grace is all about, that through the cross you and I might receive God’s riches at Christ’s expense. And if you have never experienced this wonderful, free and undeserved gift of grace, then may I urge to accept this offer this morning, because there is truly no better thing to know than we have been loved and accepted by our Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ.
Because this sacrifice was so perfect, it also stands to reason that as we read in verse 26 that Jesus … has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. For what Jesus achieved on the cross was an act which can never be repeated, never be equalled. That is why when I come to celebrate Holy Communion in a little while, I want you to put out of your mind any thought that here is a priest offering a sacrifice on an altar. That is the language of the old religion, and it seems to me a blasphemy to suggest that by breaking bread and pouring out wine we are somehow re-enacting the work Jesus accomplished on the cross. We feed of His body and His blood in celebration of all that He has already achieved and we gather with one another to recognise that we have been called to be His people, saved by grace alone.
Which leads on a third and vitally important point about the difference between the sacrifices offered by the High Priest and the sacrifice offered once for all by Jesus. Because the sacrifices of the old religion could only deal with the sins of the past. There was no expectation that by the time of the next Day of Atonement anything would be any different. The same animals would have to be sacrificed by the same people, and the same offering carried into the inner sanctuary. It was a ritual to be carried from generation to generation, never to change, never able to point to a better future.
Yet the point of Jesus’ sacrifice is not only that it deals with all our sin, but it also provides us with a hope beyond the sin and brokenness of this present world. Listen again to these wonderful words from Hebrews 9:27-28:
Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
You see, as believers it is equally true to say we have been saved and we will be saved. Jesus has already paid the price of all our wrongdoing and rebellion against God. He has offered once for all the perfect sacrifice of Himself so that the way back to our Heavenly Father is open to all who believe and trust in Him. Yet although sin has been ultimately defeated, it is stating the obvious to say that it still has real power in this world. We are surrounded every day by its terrible effects on a personal, national, international level. So where is the hope? Simply in this, that one day Jesus will bring in a new heaven and a new earth where the victory over sin will be visible and we will at last be with Him forever, safe and secure for all eternity.
And that, my brothers and sisters, is the good news we are called to live and proclaim. But let me take you back a moment to Pedro Carolino, the unfortunate Portuguese gentleman I mentioned at the beginning. His problem was the quite simply that he did not know the language into which he was translating and so what he wrote didn’t make sense.
Sadly, there are occasions when churches have fared little better in making the gospel known. We may know what it means, for example, to be washed in the blood of the lamb but to anyone on the outside that phrase hardly makes sense. And what about words that perhaps we take for granted, such as sin and grace? If we do not make an effort to communicate the good news in ways people can actually understand, then we can hardly be surprised if folk fail to make a response.
In our gospel reading Jesus – as so often – began his teaching by responding to a question someone put to him: Good teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life? More and more I am convinced that if we want to make the good news known we need to be listening out for the questions people are asking. Now it will perhaps be rare that anyone will ask about inheriting eternal life, but the more I go on in my ministry, the more I find people are carrying around inside them many, many deep questions for which they have little answer, questions such as: Does anyone care for me? Can I be forgiven? Is there a hope for me? And it’s when we hear such questions, we can point to the cross to show that Jesus showed His love by dying for us; that He paid the price for all the wrong we have ever done; that He opened up the way to our Heavenly Father and gives us a relationship with Him that will never end.
But of course before we can do that, we have to know the power of the cross for ourselves. So let me leave you this morning with some questions for you to think about:
Do you know that through Jesus you can now have a relationship with God as your Heavenly Father?
Do you know that through Jesus your every sin has been forgiven?
Do you know that through Jesus you have a hope that is solid and secure?
Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (v28)
So let’s all of us use this morning to come back to the cross in faith and trust, and let’s dedicate ourselves to the service of Jesus, for His name’s sake. Amen.